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US midterm elections 2018

Russia adopting new tactics in election interference efforts, US claims

  • Interference focused on memes this election, experts claim, with Moscow’s minions apparently dumping fake news because people are more savvy
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 7:25pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 November, 2018, 7:25pm

Russians believed to be connected to their government have been involved in spreading divisive content and promoting extreme themes in the run-up to Tuesday’s US midterm elections, but they are working harder to hide their tracks, according to US government investigators, academics and security firms.

Researchers studying the spread of disinformation on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms say the new, more subtle tactics have allowed most of the so-called information operations campaigns to survive purges by big social media companies and avoid government scrutiny.

“The Russians are definitely not sitting this one out,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “They have adapted over time to increased focus on influence operations.”

US intelligence and law enforcement agencies claim Russia used disinformation and other tactics to support President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. The Russian government has rejected claims of election interference.

One alleged sign of Moscow trying to disrupt American political life came out in charges unsealed last month against a female Russian accountant at a St Petersburg company known as the Internet Research Agency.

After spending US$12 million on a project to influence the US election through social media in 2016, the company budgeted $12.2 million for last year and then proposed spending US$10 million in just the first half of 2018, court filings claim.

The indictment said Internet Research Agency used fake social media accounts to post on both sides of politically charged issues including race, gun control and immigration. The instructions were detailed, down to how to mock particular politicians during a specific news cycle.

If the goals of spreading divisive content have remained the same, the methods have evolved in multiple ways, researchers say. For one, there has been less reliance on pure fiction.

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“We’ve done a lot research on fake news and people are getting better at figuring out what it is, so it’s become less effective as a tactic,” said Priscilla Moriuchi, a former National Security Agency official who is now a threat analyst at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.

Instead, Russian accounts have been amplifying stories and internet “memes” that initially came from the US far left or far right. Such postings seem more authentic, are harder to identify as foreign, and are easier to produce than made-up stories.

Some of them seized on the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court to rally conservatives, while others used memes from the leftist Occupy Democrats. Some operators of the accounts in the collection established themselves as far-right pundits and had accounts on Gab, the social network favoured by the far right.

Brookie said while the Russian accounts might jump on a hot topic, the payoff would often come by throwing in related issues.

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Take the idea of “Blexit,” a call for black Americans to exit the Democratic Party. The Daily Beast said it captured 250,000 tweets with the Blexit hashtag during a 15-hour burst last week and found 40,000 of them came from handles that had previously taken part in Russian information campaigns.

“They are baiting Americans to drive more polarising and vitriolic content,” Brookie said. “Any given solution needs to focus on basing our politics on facts, first and foremost, and to focus on what holds our country closer together.”