Russia and China are fueling web wars to divide Americans
American adversaries not only hack our computers, but they also hack our minds.
As Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin confidant Yevgeny Prigozhin openly stated in early November regarding US elections, “Gentlemen, we interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere.” But Russia and China aren’t solely interested in elections. They want to destabilize American society by using our own freedoms against us.
It is high time we call these foreign information operations what they are: psychological warfare against the United States.
According to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, “Propaganda should be smart, competent and effective.” To that end, in 2017, the Kremlin established special “information operations forces” within the Russian military to craft a “new cyber army.” Putin has also allocated increased resources to troll farms, such as the notorious Internet Research Agency (IRA); the IRA uses fake social media accounts to foment division abroad. These efforts are part of the Kremlin’s coordinated, heavily financed effort to undermine democracy.
The revanchist Kremlin has exploited America’s polarization along political and racial lines to paralyze and inflame US politics. Russian state media, bots, trolls and online proxies exploit disagreements in the US over social issues like abortion, gun control, ethnic groups and police behavior.
One IRA account under the name Nora Berka informed Americans that “we are at war” alongside a photo of Donald Trump holding a rifle. When NFL players protested police brutality and racism by kneeling during the national anthem, Russian Twitter accounts amplified their message, targeting both pro and anti-protest accounts. Russian accounts also paid for advertisements to promote the Black Lives Matter movement and protests in Baltimore. Russia, China and Iran all used the George Floyd killing to amplify messages on social media portraying the U.S. as a viciously racist society.
This is nothing new. During the Cold War, the Kremlin used information operations to spread the message about American “racism” and “imperialism.” A KGB disinformation campaign called Operation Denver blamed the U.S. government for engineering the HIV virus and spread the false narrative that the CIA was using AIDS to target and kill black Americans.
China has adopted the Russian playbook in spreading disinformation from both sides of the political divide. It fans the flames using fake Twitter accounts such as “ULTRA MAGA BELLA Hot Babe,” which was run by a Chinese spy before it was taken down. With an army of 26,000 followers, it accused Barack Obama of being a “lizard person who is a member of the Illuminati” and spread disinformation about election fraud. Another fake account, “Salome Cliff,” accused Trump of persecuting minorities.
The goal is not to promote one political side over another. It’s to keep the United States as divided as possible.
Part of the motivation is domestic. China tells its people that America is a racist society riven with crime. Russia says we’re a godless land. Anything to distract from their own totalitarian regimes.
To counter these initiatives, the US does not need to peddle disinformation. Rather, its information operations should focus on promoting democratic values, which represent an existential threat to the rulers in Moscow and Beijing.
US information operations should also expose the corruption, brutality, and authoritarianism at the core of these regimes. To a significant extent, that is what the US did — effectively and unapologetically — during the Cold War.
It is ironic how, in the 21st century, when information technologies and media are more important than at any time in history, the US has failed to upgrade its information operations to match the moment. That’s partly because of a small group pushing the idea that America is evil.
Remember — only 23% of Americans use Twitter, according a Pew Research poll from this year. A much smaller percentage are the one stirring up racism, conspiracy theories or bashing the country. And what percentage of those are foreign bots?
Foreign aggressors like Russia and China target fault lines in the US, such as racial tensions, to polarize society and incite chaos. It is paramount for politicians on both sides of the table to unite to protect our shared values. Moscow and Beijing already claim to believe the US is waging an information war against them. If only that represented the reality on the ground.
Ivana Stradner is a research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focusing on Russia’s information security.