Information warfare, according to Dan Kuehl of the United States’ National Defense University, is the “conflict or struggle between two or more groups in the information environment.” The rapid expansion of the online information space has significantly bolstered the efficacy of these information warfare tactics, offering governments unfettered access to one of the most influential and all-encompassing arenas of public discourse. Increasingly, governments exploit this access to undermine rival nations, waging disinformation campaigns to exacerbate social cleavages, divide communities, and fuel discontent.
The extent to which foreign actors have permeated U.S. online society is somewhat staggering. Troll farms, professional groups that coordinate internet activity to disseminate and amplify online propaganda, reached around 140 million Americans a month in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. As of late 2019, 15,000 Facebook pages with a majority U.S. following were being run by these troll farms, many of which are based far from American shores, in countries such as Russia, Kosovo, and Macedonia.
These pages included: the largest Christian American page on Facebook, with 20 times more followers than the next largest and reaching 75 million U.S. users per month; the largest African-American page on Facebook, reaching 30 million U.S. users per month; and the fifth-largest women’s page on Facebook, reaching 60 million U.S. users per month. Of the top 15 African-American pages, two-thirds were run by troll farms, and of the top 20 Christian pages, this figure reached 95%.
According to the reports, the target demographics of these troll farms mirror those selected by the Russia-backed Internet Research Agency in its effort to undermine U.S. political discourse during the 2016 election. Indeed, a 2018 Buzzfeed News investigation revealed that at least one member of the Internet Research Agency had visited Macedonia around the emergence of its first troll farms, and Facebook’s own cybersecurity chief has noted that Iranian troll farms have begun implementing Russian tactics. The behavior of these troll farms points to a disturbing conclusion: a well-organized and broadscale effort, orchestrated by foreign actors, to control the information ecosphere of American society.
Understanding the Threat
This effort to infiltrate the U.S. digital landscape represents a serious national security threat. Indeed, the intention of these foreign actors is to destabilize American society. This is achieved by inflaming social tensions, provoking civil unrest, and strengthening extremist narratives. One approach adopted by these foreign actors is the dissemination and amplification of conspiracy theories.
In 2019, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) labeled these theories as a domestic terrorism threat and drew attention to the radical adherents of QAnon conspiracy, who they described as “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists.” QAnon is a wide-ranging theory with an enormous number of offshoots and internal debates. But, at its core, is the belief that a powerful global cabal of Satan-worshippers is seeking to control society.
The FBI assessed that these theories, including QAnon, “very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts.” In a more recent assessment from earlier this year, the FBI described how morphing attitudes within the QAnon movement will likely incline its adherents towards “real world violence–including harming perceived members of the “cabal” such as Democrats and other political opposition.” Indeed, during the January 6 Capitol insurrection, QAnon flags and signs were visible within the crowd, and more than 20 self-identified QAnon adherents have been arrested in relation to the attack.
Despite the bizarre claims of the QAnon movement, it appears to have been far more prominent than once assumed. A poll of a nationally representative sample of 9,308 U.S. adults published earlier this year found that between 20 and 23 percent of Americans self-identify as QAnon believers, a figure far higher than previous surveys indicated.
The theory’s popularity seems, at least in part, to be driven by foreign governments seeking to exploit tensions within the U.S. Indeed, a report published by the New York-based Soufan Center revealed that around 20% of all QAnon-related Facebook posts between January 2020 and February 2021 originated outside the United States, a significant proportion of which came from Russia and China. “Throughout 2020,” the report reads, “the consistent foreign amplification of QAnon narratives online illustrates that externally driven disinformation efforts have contributed to the efficient spread of conspiracy theories.”
“We are seeing common narratives that seem to be resonating with individuals who are looking for extremist ideological beliefs to serve as the justification for violence being introduced by foreign nation-states” said Department of Homeland Security Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen, speaking shortly after the unveiling of President Joe Biden’s new National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism earlier this year. “There are threat actors, whether it’s foreign governments like Russia or Iran or China… that are taking advantage of that anger and the polarization of our society.”
Efforts to Divide American Society
The efforts of these foreign actors stretch far beyond the QAnon movement. Russian Facebook pages and accounts have been used to plan dozens of politically divisive demonstrations across the United States. For example, in 2016, two Russian Facebook pages organized dueling rallies in front of a Houston Islamic center. One of these rallies, organized by the Heart of Texas group, announced their demonstration to “Stop Islamification of Texas,” whilst another Russian-based group organized a “Save Islamic Knowledge” rally at the same time and location.
Both left-wing and right-wing causes have been weaponized by Russian actors, who have used targeting advertising, private messaging campaigns, and even offers of reimbursement for travel expenses, to incite a range of demonstrations, from the Being Patriotic group’s “March for Trump” rally in New York to the United Muslims of America group’s “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” rally.
More recently, Russia and China have sought to spread various coronavirus-related conspiracies, including disinformation and propaganda about the origins of COVID-19, unproven treatments for the disease, and the efficacy and risks of the vaccine rollout. Europol has already warned that the efforts to combat COVID-19 have escalated the threat of violence extremism and Michele Grossman, from the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats, has described COVID-19 as a “swiftly weaponized gift,” for those “who seek to escalate violent conflict, accelerate civil unrest, and enhance social and political polarization.”
“They are constantly exploring, looking, poking, prodding,” says Matthew Masteron, former senior cyber security advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, “looking for ways to cast doubt, to divide us along racial lines, along political lines, along whatever societal divisions we already have in existence.”
The United States must work to counter the disruptive online influence of foreign actors in their attempts to divide American society. This challenge will require cooperation from the U.S. government, the private sector, civil society, and others in promoting a healthy, online information ecosphere. The United States must strike an important balance in this effort, ensuring that it protects public discourse from foreign subversion whilst also preserving freedom of expression.
Efforts must also be made to tackle the widespread social grievances from which extremist groups draw support, and the underlying disaffection of Americans drawn to violent political action. Indeed, the FBI have stated that “the uncovering of real conspiracies or cover-ups involving illegal, harmful, or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures” contributes to the growing intensity of the extremist threat.
As the United States continues to grow more polarized, and as more Americans are drawn to political violence, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. address these issues. Indeed, analysis by Barbara F. Walter from the Political Instability Task Force, a CIA advisory panel, has recently warned that the U.S. is “closer to civil war than any of us would like to believe.” If the United States is to avoid this fate, it must work with intense resolve to strengthen enlightened public discourse and to rebuild the unity of its fractured society.
Oliver Alexander Crisp, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow
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