Evaluating current information operations: The 2020 information environment is challenging, riddled with cascading disinformation campaigns that grow more targeted and complex over time, and which are increasingly tied to offline events and advanced via new techniques. It is vital that we have a clear perspective on events relating to the elections, coronavirus, and now protests and civil unrest, but we know that disinformation and malign influence campaigns seek to distort those perceptions. Now is when it’s most vital to be a better information citizen in a highly connected world, and to be vigilant about the new campaigns that seek to influence us.
Current IO Topics 2: US intelligence is finally figuring out how to communicate with the American public on threats in our information domain, and we should all pay attention.
If you know me, you know I have been relentlessly negative over the past four years about the slow, clunky, visionless way in which the United States has attempted to respond to the information and influence campaigns being run by the Kremlin against the American public. Yes, components of various US intelligence agencies and parts of our combatant commands have good visibility on the threat and overall awareness of what is at stake, and yes, there are some internal processes and briefings to Congress — but what if none of it gets out of the blackbox and helps inform the American public? When a beneficiary of foreign influence campaigns sits in the White House, top-down and self-imposed barriers alike have a way of materializing to slow the communication with Americans about the goals, extent, and significance of these threats, and how they work to target us as individuals, communities, and society. Every day since the 2016 election, it has just felt like we were impossibly far behind, and comfortable staying on the back foot.
But in the past week, there have been a handful of positive developments — signs that the US intelligence community is finally beta-testing its ability to communicate directly to the American electorate on the threats that target them directly in the information domain, and signs that the IC is willing to discuss tactics and narrative in more detail, and in ways that will better prepare individuals for self-defense against the campaigns of adversarial powers, particularly the Kremlin.
First, William Evanina, Director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, which is part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, put out a statement warning that there are ongoing cyber and information threats from adversarial powers targeting the 2020 elections. “Foreign efforts to influence or interfere with our elections are a direct threat to the fabric of our democracy,” the statement read, going on to outline the types of influence and goals that Russia, China, and Iran are pursuing in broad terms.
The Evanina statement is significant because it highlighted the fact that multiple adversarial nations are now targeting America — copying and adapting the techniques and tactics that Russia pioneered — to influence the information environment in advance of the 2020 elections, and that this is a threat to our democracy. (This stands in stark contrast, for example, to hedging by the Attorney General about whether it is wrong to accept foreign help to win an election.) The White House and presidential loyalists may want to continue to discuss Russia’s attack on America only in the context of the “Russia investigation hoax,” but the IC and its constituent agencies are pushing forward on solutions and analysis that may be out of alignment with the president’s political narrative. This is a very positive sign. “This is the beginning of a conversation with the American public,” an ODNI official commented. “There is more to follow.” Yes, please. More of this.
Second — and maybe making good on that promise — there were two stories in the AP and the New York Times about how Russian intelligence has been laundering stories meant to amplify coronavirus disinformation and certain sentiments about the ongoing protests through outlets meant to obfuscate the Kremlin links as they target Western countries. While perhaps frustrating that they reverted to using anonymous intelligence sources, rather than officials going on the record, these stories were enormously important because they moved away from the limited and diminutive discussions of bots and trolls and ad campaigns by Kremlin troll farms — none of which were really the thing in 2016 — and moved the discussion forward toward a broader understanding of what narrative architecture and narrative laundering are, and of how widespread, broad-based, deeply-embedded, and very serious the Kremlin’s information warfare against the American public really is.
The practice of narrative laundering, a more advanced tactic in information operations, relies on a sophisticated long-term effort to build up networks of proxy “experts” and outlets that echo Kremlin interests and become part of the established narrative architecture inside the American information environment that is used by the Kremlin to influence American debate and discourse on different subjects. Essentially, while some people may not care if they are posting content from Russian state media outlets, other people do, and it is far more likely that Kremlin narrative will gain traction by not looking like Kremlin narrative. Having this network of pass-throughs and sympathizers is invaluable to the Kremlin. But it is very hard to demonstrate whether these organizations are witting assets, openly receiving funding and information from Russian intelligence, or merely fellow travelers. And since 2016, everyone has been too focused on the former, rather than what the narrative similarities expose.
Narrative — the purpose of the information, what it aims to achieve — is about influence. And the established narrative architecture, rather than the networks of accounts that transmit it, is the thing that is of value to the Kremlin. And so — in my view, anyway — exposing both narrative and narrative networks is exactly the work that the intelligence community should be focused on, and exactly what they need to do a better job explaining to the American public.
Here are the big takeaways from the AP and NYT stories:
- An established network of pro-Russian soft-narrative outlets, some of which can be shown to have direct links to Russian intelligence, is spreading Russian disinformation in the American information domain. The IC is watching this network.
- This narrative laundering is extremely valuable to Russian intelligence. It targets not only the United States, but our allies in Europe.
- In some instances, this is done with fabricated materials or even entirely fabricated journalists or experts. One of the most important factors for exposing it is narrative.
- Russian election interference is drilling down below the national level to the state and local level: the NYT story highlights that former defense department official Evelyn Farkas, who was running for Congress in New York State in a closely-contested primary, was targeted by disinformation efforts during her campaign. It’s unclear how widespread this was, but it indicates an escalation in scope and scale from 2016 that tracks with other information.
- Russian information networks are amplifying Chinese disinformation narratives also, especially on coronavirus. (Our intelligence agencies may be particularly bad at connecting dots in a meaningful or comprehensive way when the public is involved, but Russia, China, and Iran are increasingly working together and coordinating in areas against the United States. One of the domains where they most actively learn from and leverage each other’s work is the information domain.)
There are only a handful of sites and outlets specifically mentioned in the AP and NYT stories — so what’s the big deal? The usual subjects — part of a narrative network of their own in which the Kremlin is never really a threat — are already downplaying the significance of these revelations. But the big deal is what these small-seeming organizations have already been connected to.
The “Strategic Culture Foundation” (SCF), for example, is identified as being directed by the SVR (the Russian foreign intelligence service/CIA-equivalent) — which is a really big admission from US intelligence. SCF is a persistent purveyor of anti-Western, pro-Kremlin narratives; it has many American contributors among the dozens of academics, parliamentarians, diplomats, and journalists who write for the site (many of whom will be surprised to learn they have been writing for an SVR project); and it has broad reach into the American information environment via referring sites like ZeroHedge, Global Research, Veterans Today, and more. SCF has also been linked to efforts to infiltrate and influence US military personnel and veterans with pro-Kremlin, pro-Putin sentiment. This has a real and lasting impact on our men and women in uniform — but is only one small piece of what SCF is doing and its broader influence. And again, this is a project of Russian foreign intelligence explicitly targeting Americans, including active duty troops, to change and influence their views.
“Global Research,” one of the organizations that amplifies SCF, is the organization that seeded and pushed the Jade Helm 2015 conspiracy theory, which claimed a summer 2015 US military exercise/disaster preparedness drill in the southwestern United States was really a test-run for President Obama to stage the mass arrest of his political opponents. Former CIA Director Michael Hayden later identified Jade Helm as a test run by Russians in the American information domain — a major Kremlin capabilities test in the lead-up to 2016. It is likely that the wild success of the Jade Helm test — which colonized InfoWars and ultimately led to the Governor of Texas calling up the state guard to observe the exercise, just in case the conspiracy was true — encouraged the Kremlin to push ahead full-steam in their information operations targeting the American public. Because we looked like — were — a soft target with few institutional protections.
But it starts to become clear how the different sites collaborate to amplify the same narratives via different means, targeting different audiences and reaching more people. And anchored within the network are projects run by foreign intelligence services.
There’s a lot we still have yet to address. For example, Evanina’s statement on the elections was initially met by frustration from Democratic lawmakers, who felt that it did not go far enough in providing specifics or taking sides. It was a reminder that everyone still thinks that Russia’s narrative laundering, and the overall architecture of influence that the Kremlin has developed in the United States, works better on the other side than it could on them. In truth, this architecture is as much about influencing the right as the left, and I suspect that more of this will become clear as the intelligence community continues exposing the network map of influence as the election goes forward…hard truths. But the best thing is to remember: a goal of the Kremlin’s information operations has always been to build a state of permanent conflict within US society. To tear us down. Focus us inward. What Putin once described as a nation focused on its own internal problems not being able to raise its head.
So, we still have a long way to go. But these first signs of life from the IC in helping to provide defense to American citizens in escalating information wars is a positive step. More of this will be critical to lessening the power of adversarial influence campaigns on our media and on our public discourse.
So, what can you do about it?
As we discuss information threats specific to the current landscape, it’s important to return to the question guiding this blog series: What does it mean to be a better information citizen? Let’s go through the parameters we laid out, in the context of these new developments.
First and foremost, encourage and amplify messages from the IC about threats in the information domain and threats targeting the election. Maybe they don’t go as far as you want, or they might say something against your partisan leanings — but it’s a big development that the IC is more active in communicating to the public, and these details should be pushed to as many people as possible. If the IC can develop a role as a trusted arbiter in this space, it is of benefit to us all.
What also stands out is the need for each of us to critically evaluate sources, and to understand what the overall objectives of the outlets or organizations promoting certain narratives may be. If US intelligence identifies outlets that are part of malign influence campaigns, look at where they sit in the broader information landscape, what and who they promote. You can hate the Iraq war without posting Kremlin content. You can take the extra minute to evaluate the source of an article or video before you post it. You can find a better way to be upset about racial inequities or police violence than posting a tweet from a pro-Assad shill.
Are you being asked to play a role in inflaming division? In escalating the perception of conflict? Is there a better, smarter way to say what you need to that will put you back in control?
And then consider, overall, the narrative that *you* build in your posts and interactions on the internet and social media. Are you only contributing divisive content, or are you evaluating ways ahead? Are you speaking to strengths, or only showing weakness?
Molly McKew (@MollyMcKew) is a senior adviser to the Stand Up Republic Foundation. She is a writer and lecturer on Russian influence and information warfare. She advised the Georgian president and national security council from 2009 to 2013, and former Moldovan Prime Minister Vlad Filat in 2014 and 2015.