Fighting Bears and Trolls: An Analysis of Social Media Companies and U.S. Government Efforts to Combat Russian Influence Campaigns during the 2020 U.S. Elections

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Elvis Chan

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

This thesis uses a systematic framework to evaluate the qualitative effectiveness of the Russian disinformation campaigns and the countermeasures taken by the U.S. government and social media companies to combat the aforementioned campaigns targeting the 2020 U.S. elections.  To develop effective countermeasures for Russian interference activities targeting future American elections, this thesis seeks to answer the following question:  What impact did the measures taken by the American social media companies and the U.S. government have on Russian social media influence campaigns targeting the 2020 U.S. elections?

Russian operatives working under the auspices of a St. Petersburg-based organization, known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA), created a significant degree of the toxicity on social media during the 2016 U.S. elections.[1]  The online social media influence campaign perpetrated by the Internet Research Agency aimed to fan the flames of existing divisive rhetoric, drive a wedge between the many demographic groups in America, and erode confidence in democracy.[2]  Russia remains a committed adversary with influence operations continuing to this very day, posing an active threat to American democracy.[3]

Since the end of 2016, federal agencies and private sector organizations, specifically the major American social media companies, have been actively helping to safeguard political campaigns and election infrastructure from computer intrusions through increased cybersecurity and other security measures. To date, most research has focused on quantitative and qualitative analyses of the IRA’s influence campaigns. However, this research has not analyzed how the Russian government perceived the effectiveness of its campaigns. Furthermore, the efficacy of the U.S governmental and private sector actions to defend against the IRA’s influence campaigns has not been systematically analyzed.

The objectives of this thesis are three-fold: (1) examining the Internet Research Agency and other Russian social media campaigns ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections to determine whether its tactics have shifted since 2016; (2) critically analyzing the private sector and U.S. government’s actions to counter the Russian influence activities; and (3) proposing recommendations to safeguard future U.S. elections. The first two objectives are assessed using an analytical framework proposed by Thomas Wilhelm, Director of the U.S. Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office.  The results of the first two objectives, inform the last objective as well as a review of current literature by scholars and subject matter experts in different fields.

To design a helpful framework for analyzing Russian influence operations, Thomas Wilhelm surveyed the published works and speeches of General Lieutenant Andrei V.   Kartapolov. Wilhelm surmised Kartapolov was one of the key architects of current Russian military science and doctrine.[4] Wilhelm believed the framework provided a well-rounded understanding of Russian martial intent and objectives about hybrid warfare from a Russian perspective.[5] Specifically, Kartapolov advocates using asymmetric, non-violent methods to undermine the strengths of Russia’s opponents to achieve their strategic goals.[6]

The relevant components of the Kartapolov Framework for analyzing Russian social media-based influence operations against the United States are: (1) spreading discontent in the population; (2) exerting political pressure; and (3) confusing the political leadership.[7] This thesis uses the Kartapolov framework to conduct a qualitative evaluation of the Internet Research Agency’s impact and the effectiveness of social media companies and the U.S. government’s countermeasures. Specifically, it analyzes American actions to determine their effectiveness for countering the three influence-related components of the Kartapolov Framework.

Three main themes emerged from the 2020 U.S elections.  First, the Russians continued their efforts to target the U.S. elections but shifted tactics to avoid detection. Second, the social media companies, along with news media and research organizations, successfully identified and disrupted the evolving Russian disinformation campaigns. Third, the U.S. government acted more forcefully in securing the elections, primarily through its information sharing with the social media companies, political organizations, and the American public.

Despite the best efforts of the Russians, social media companies, news media, and research organizations detected, exposed, and disrupted the activities of the Internet Research Agency and other Russian-affiliated online groups. Although America’s private sector may have been caught unaware during the 2016 elections, it was on heightened alert ahead of 2020, with the noteworthy efforts of American news outlets and non-governmental organizations exposing Russian disinformation activities and paving the way for the social media companies to shut down their social media accounts.

The U.S. government’s response to the Russian influence campaign appeared more robust before the 2020 elections than in the 2016 or 2018 elections.  The most important actions taken by the U.S. government may have been the information sharing with the social media companies to expose Russia’s different operations and shut down its accounts. In addition, the U.S. government’s information-sharing may have helped the social media companies secure their platforms by identifying malign Russian influence activities. The U.S. government’s other responses, such as economic sanctions and indictments, provided the American public with factual narratives of the crimes perpetrated by the Russian Federation.

It took the collaborative efforts of the private sector, in the form of social media companies, researcher organizations, and news media, and the public sector, in the form of the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government, to turn back the Putin-sanctioned disinformation operations which were targeting the 2020 U.S. elections. Ultimately, the American actions appeared effective in mitigating the Russian online tactics because voters were undeterred and turned out in record numbers for the election.

The 2021 Intelligence Community’s annual threat assessment named Russia as one of “the most serious intelligence threats to the United States” and warned that the Russian government would continue its efforts to propagate dissension in the American populace.[8] Based on the evaluation of the Russian actions and the effectiveness of the American responses in the 2020 U.S. elections, this thesis makes recommendations for protecting future elections that have been drawn from experts in the U.S. government, non-governmental organizations, and academic institutions.  The three types of possible actions are broadly categorized as security, transparency, and resiliency measures.[9] The proposed security measures include enhanced cybersecurity, enhanced disinformation detection, economic sanctions, information sharing, and the establishment of a fusion center. The transparency measures proposed include a public communications strategy, content labeling standards, updated political advertising and campaign finance laws, and transparent reporting. The resiliency measures suggested include improved media literacy and critical thinking for the American public.[10] Hopefully, incorporating the proposed measures with existing ones will help repair and strengthen the framework of American democracy for the 21st century.

[1] Robert Mueller, Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election (Washington, DC: Department of Justice, 2019), 4, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=824221.

[2] Renee DiResta et al., The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency (New York: New Knowledge, 2018), 4.

[3] Miles Parks and Philip Ewing, “Foreign Interference Persists And Techniques Are Evolving, Big Tech Tells Hill,” National Public Radio, June 18, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/18/880349422/foreign-interference-persists-and-techniques-are-evolving-big-tech-tells-hill.

[4] Tom Wilhelm, “A Russian Military Framework for Understanding Influence in the Competition Period,” Military Review (2020): 35.

[5] Wilhelm, 38.

[6] Rod Thornton, “The Russian Military’s New ‘Main Emphasis,’” RUSI Journal 162, no. 4 (2017): 18–28, https://doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2017.1381401.

[7] A. V. Kartapolov, “Lessons of Military Conflict, Perspectives on the Development of the Related Forms and Methods,” Journal of the Academy of Military Science 51, no. 2 (2015): 36.

[8] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2021 Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community (Washington, DC: Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 2021), 11, https://www.dni.gov/index.php/newsroom/reports-publications/reports-publications-2021/item/2204-2021-annual-threat-assessment-of-the-u-s-intelligence-community.

[9] Gabriel Cederberg et al., National Counter-Information Operations Strategy (Cambridge, MA: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, 2019), https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/national-counter-information-operations-strategy; Renée DiResta and Shelby Grossman, Potemkin Pages & Personas: Assessing GRU Online Operations, 2014–2019 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University, 2019), https://cyber.fsi.stanford.edu/io/publication/potemkin-think-tanks; Angus King and Mike Gallagher, Cybersecurity Lessons from the Pandemic, CSC White Paper #1 (Washington, DC: U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, 2020), https://www.solarium.gov/public-communications/pandemic-white-paper; Report on Russian Active Measures (Washington, DC: U.S. Congress. House, 2018), https://republicans-intelligence.house.gov/uploadedfiles/final_russia_investigation_report.pdf; Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence, United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Volume 1: Russian Efforts against Election Infrastructure with Additional Views, Senate, 116th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington, DC: U.S. Congress. Senate, 2017), https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/sites/default/files/documents/Report_Volume1.pdf.

[10] Michael McFaul, ed., Securing American Elections (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University, Cyber Policy Center, 2019), 8, https://www.hsdl.org/?view&did=827251.

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