Hacking Privacy Technology

Disinformation: An Old Weapon in a New Media

How prevalent is disinformation in today's social media? What is its effects?

Governments throughout history have engaged in propaganda, smears and fake news to place their neighbors and adversaries at a disadvantage and to justify their own actions. Targets of disinformation may include anyone, even the country’s own citizens, especially political opponents and dissidents. These tactics are especially prevalent in totalitarian governments like North Korea and China, or in partial democracies like Russia and the Philippines.

With the rise of NATO in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the Russian government has increasingly used sophisticated techniques to spread disinformation across social media and online news sites.  Since the Soviet breakup, the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia have endured over 20 years of Russian attempts to interfere in their internal affairs. Since joining NATO, these countries have increasingly been targeted by Russian disinformation with varying degrees of success.

One targeted country, Finland, has had some success with countering Russian disinformation. Finland has a strong public education system and official government support in publicizing Russian disinformation efforts in the country. Finland also has a long history of Russia threatening and interfering with the country. Jed Willard is the director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard and is currently working for the Swedish government.

Willard is helping the Finnish government understand and counter false information and Russian propaganda. He has found that you stick to the truth and have a narrative that defines your position strongly. Keep to that position and do not repeat the untruths, even to refute them. Repeating the untruths actually strengthens them in the minds of people. Just repeat only the true facts and ignore the false news other than reporting that false news stories are circulating.

“The best way to respond is less by correcting the information, and more about having your own positive narrative and sticking to it,” Jed Willard

The FBI has warned of the use of disinformation and fake news by nations that have an adversarial relationship with the United States, especially Russia. The Russians have long put out favorable news towards themselves in Western publications. But in the past this type of propaganda was found mainly in the left leaning press as the Soviet government considered itself allied with left-leaning groups.

Today the Russians target both the left and the right with fake news with the goal of getting readers to distrust their own governments. This has become obvious with election interference and the proliferation of false news stories in social media and fake online news sites. It may have taken a few years for the citizens in the West to recognize propaganda, but now many actively tease online trolls suspected of working at Russia’s “Troll Farm”.

Russia’s Troll Farm is an office in St. Petersburg where people are employed to go on regular online news sites. The pretend to be citizens of the United States or other countries and start posting comments under various pseudonyms. They push the same points of view found on Russian state run news sites like RT, Sputnik, and Pravda.

The trolls can be recognized by the adherence to the state news, and repeating it over and over across various sites. The same comments can be found across varied news sites such as ABC, CBS, and NBC News to online written publications such as the Washington Post and The New York Times. From online sites on the right such as Breitbart News and InfoWars to sites on the left such as The Nation, these same arguments supporting Russian disinformation are touted by both right and left leaning people.

Russia has long viewed the West as a target for manipulation.

The disinformation in the form of slanted and outright false stories such as the fake Clinton pizza-child-sex story started out on fake sites in Eastern Europe, rapidly spread to Russian news outlets, then were picked up unquestioningly by sites on the right like InfoWars. From there these types of stories circulated on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Because of the wide and rapid spread of these types of stories, it may be impossible to trace exactly where it started.

This disinformation may also take the form of fake official documents placed in the dump of real official documents. This may have happened when a fake Russian intelligence document was obtained by the FBI detailing a fake story about coordination between Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General, and the Clinton campaign. Even though the FBI suspected the document was fake, they still investigated the contents as real.

In a bizarre twist, a fringe news site, Veteran’s Today, is in partnership with New Eastern Outlook, a journal published by the government-chartered Russian Academy of Sciences. New Eastern Outlook regularly posts extremely slanted and fake stories about military topics. This website is geared towards US military veterans and active duty military.

I’m familiar with placing “official documents” where they can be found and cause problems. Once I worked at an office where our competitor routinely went through our trash. So we crafted fake proposals, fake business opportunities, incorrect internal information, etc. with the knowledge that our competitor would find them and use them. We even placed fake coffee stains and comments and redlining on the documents. It’s a very effective strategy for causing confusion in your competitors.

Russia has long viewed the West as a target for manipulation. How can we in the United States reduce the effects of targeted disinformation campaigns? How can we educate citizens in the United States who have been taught to trust the news they receive? Further stories will cover these topics.


About Anna Nyms

Anna Nyms loves to write about numbers and what can be done with them. She is an advocate for privacy and stronger online security. Her interests are encryption, privacy, hacking, and programming. Anna currently lives in Huntsville, Alabama with her husband and young daughter. She is a former US Air Force officer, spent nearly 20 years in the California desert working at Lockheed Martin ADP, and now works as a computer programmer.

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