A new U.S. intelligence report says that the Russian government is conducting a wide-ranging and “opportunistic” campaign to expand its political influence in Europe by deploying Internet “trolls and other cyber actors” to challenge pro-Western journalists and spread pro-Kremlin messages in social media forums.
Yahoo News obtained a declassified summary of the report, which also describes the role of two state-owned media outlets, RT and Sputnik, in what some experts say is an increasingly aggressive “information warfare” campaign. According to the report, the outlets promote Russia’s political aims with programming targeted to “activist” audiences including “far-right and far-left elements of European society.” It adds that the RT channel gives “disproportionate coverage and airtime to the European Parliament’s more extreme factions.”
The report, by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was originally requested by congressional intelligence committees late last year. The panels also asked for a separate report on Russia’s use of political assassination. Classified versions of both documents were delivered by Clapper’s office to Capitol Hill in July.
The decision to declassify brief excerpts from the first report coincides with recent disclosures about suspected Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political groups. Many in the U.S. intelligence community believe that indicates Russia has expanded its cyberwar and disinformation efforts to the United States. “This is the 21st-century version of ‘active measures,’” said Heather Conley, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a reference to the Cold War term for the Soviet Union’s efforts to manipulate Western opinion by spreading false information, such as the claim that U.S. scientists had manufactured the AIDS virus as part of a biological weapons project at Fort Detrick, Md.
Conley added that the use of “information warfare” techniques to pursue political goals has now been incorporated into official Russian military doctrine. The goal, she said, is not “the annihilation” of the country’s enemies, but to “weaken them from within” by “keeping everybody off balance” and “sowing doubt” about their political leaders and institutions. A report by Conley describing this effort is due to be released by CSIS next month.
Russia’s use of trolls on social media would appear to fit that pattern. A report in the Guardian last year identified a St. Petersburg office building where “hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock” to flood Internet sites and Western social media forums with posts praising Russian president Vladimir Putin and denouncing the “depravity and injustice” of the West.