Russian Cyber Campaign Aims To Splinter US Voters

Thousands of Kremlin-linked Twitter accounts are churning out material designed to splinter America along political, racial and religious lines, even as tech executives fielded questions at Capitol Hill on Russian meddling in last year’s US election.

An analysis of 600 Twitter accounts traced by the German Marshall Fund, a think tank, to the Russian government has provided a vivid insight into how the Kremlin is seeking to use social media to undermine Western societies.

In the US recently, the Russian Twitter accounts latched on to a racially tinged row, begun by President Donald Trump, over whether American football players should kneel during the national anthem to protest against perceived police brutality against African-Americans.

As debate surrounding the National Football League kept America’s cable news channels transfixed, the Russian accounts sought to amplify the dispute, pumping out hashtags such as #boycottnfl and #takeaknee.

They then turned their attention to a story involving Michelle Obama, who became the target of a conservative backlash when she declared that “any woman who voted against Hillary Clinton voted against their own voice”. The accounts also pushed messages with the hashtag #Maga, Make America Great Again, Mr Trump’s campaign slogan.

People with inside experience of how Russian state-owned propaganda outfits operate see familiar patterns.

“They thrive on stories of internal US conflict, especially racial and gender-based anxieties,” said Andrew Feinberg, a former reporter for Sputnik News, an outlet identified by US intelligence as a front for Russian agitprop.

US officials say Russia is applying a Cold War propaganda tactic by amplifying issues that already polarise the US. Bret Schafer, of the German Marshall Fund, said that Russian trolls had demonstrated a “desire to latch on to anything divisive”.

Last month Russian-linked accounts sought to intensify calls by alt-right pundits and websites for the removal of HR McMaster, Mr Trump’s national security adviser, from the White House, alleging that he was a puppet of Jewish interests.

Actor Morgan Freeman came under attack this week after he promoted the Committee to Investigate Russia, an activist group that says its mission is to help “Americans recognise and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy”.

Twitter executives told the Senate and House intelligence committees yesterday it had suspended at least two dozen accounts that may have been tied to Russia. But the ranking Democrat on the Senate committee, Mark Warner, said Twitter’s explanations of its actions were “deeply disappointing”.

Senator Warner said the evidence provided over several hours by company executives behind closed doors to committee staff members “was frankly inadequate on almost every level”.

The disclosures by Twitter follow Facebook revelations that some 3000 ads were bought by entities with likely ties to Russia.

Twitter said it also provided congressional investigators with a “round-up” of ads from accounts used by Russia’s state-sponsored news network, RT. The company said in a blog post that RT spent $US274,100 on ads targeted to markets in the US last year.

Twitter provided the ads, which came from three handles used by RT, to investigators. Most tweets from the accounts promoted news stories. Twitter said it has worked harder to detect and prevent spam and “malicious automation.”

But many global cybersecurity analysts have a much larger theory about the endgame of the hacking epidemic: They believe Russia is using the Ukraine as a cyberwar testing ground, a laboratory for perfecting new forms of global online combat.

And the digital explosives that Russia has repeatedly set off in Ukraine are ones it has planted at least once before in the civil infrastructure of the United States.

In that shadow of neglect, Russia isn’t only pushing the limits of its technical abilities, says Thomas Rid, a professor in the War Studies department at King’s College London.

It’s also feeling out the edges of what the international community will tolerate. The Kremlin meddled in the Ukrainian election and faced no real repercussions; then it tried similar tactics in Germany, France, and the United States.

Russian hackers turned off the power in Ukraine with impunity, and, well, the syllogism isn’t hard to complete.

“They’re testing out red lines, what they can get away with,” Rid says. “You push and see if you’re pushed back. If not, you try the next step.”

The Australian:

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