On March 2, a disturbing report hit the desks of U. For months, American spy hunters had scrambled to uncover details of Russia’s influence how To Make Money On Social Media against the 2016 presidential election. Virginia, they had created massive wall charts to track the different players in Russia’s multipronged scheme. It described how Russia had already moved on from the rudimentary email hacks against politicians it had used in 2016. Now the Russians were running a more sophisticated hack on Twitter. The report said the Russians had sent expertly tailored messages carrying malware to more than 10,000 Twitter users in the Defense Department. Depending on the interests of the targets, the messages offered links to stories on recent sporting events or the Oscars, which had taken place the previous weekend.
As they scrambled to contain the damage from the hack and regain control of any compromised devices, the spy hunters realized they faced a new kind of threat. In 2016, Russia had used thousands of covert human agents and robot computer programs to spread disinformation referencing the stolen campaign emails of Hillary Clinton, amplifying their effect. For many Americans, Russian hacking remains a story about the 2016 election. But there is another story taking shape. Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.
The vast openness and anonymity of social media has cleared a dangerous new route for antidemocratic forces. Current and former officials at the FBI, at the CIA and in Congress now believe the 2016 Russian operation was just the most visible battle in an ongoing information war against global democracy. And they’ve become more vocal about their concern. If that sounds alarming, it helps to understand the battlescape of this new information war. That’s where the algorithms come in. American researchers have found they can use mathematical formulas to segment huge populations into thousands of subgroups according to defining characteristics like religion and political beliefs or taste in TV shows and music.
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That is what Moscow is doing, more than a dozen senior intelligence officials and others investigating Russia’s influence operations tell TIME. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U. 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence. As Russia expands its cyberpropaganda efforts, the U. One problem: the fear of Russian influence operations can be more damaging than the operations themselves.
Eager to appear more powerful than they are, the Russians would consider it a success if you questioned the truth of your news sources, knowing that Moscow might be lurking in your Facebook or Twitter feed. But figuring out if they are is hard. Like many a good spy tale, the story of how the U. In May 2016, a Russian military intelligence officer bragged to a colleague that his organization, known as the GRU, was getting ready to pay Clinton back for what President Vladimir Putin believed was an influence operation she had run against him five years earlier as Secretary of State. The GRU, he said, was going to cause chaos in the upcoming U.
What the officer didn’t know, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, was that U. They wrote up the conversation and sent it back to analysts at headquarters, who turned it from raw intelligence into an official report and circulated it. But if the officer’s boast seems like a red flag now, at the time U. In 2011, protests in more than 70 cities across Russia had threatened Putin’s control of the Kremlin.
The uprising was organized on social media by a popular blogger named Alexei Navalny, who used his blog as well as Twitter and Facebook to get crowds in the streets. Putin’s forces broke out their own social media technique to strike back. State Department had actively worked to fuel the protests. The State Department said it had just funded pro-democracy organizations.
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