Commentary: Russians are masters of disinformation. Don't fall for their lies on social media

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Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

Disinformation is a high art in Russian intelligence. Subversion, agents of influence, covert media placement, psychological operations and political influence campaigns are part of the secret war in which Russian intelligence is steeped and practicing today.

It has refined these techniques into weaponized information within the social media space and is targeting you. Recent announcements both by Facebook and Microsoft underline Russian intelligence plans to subvert and interfere in the 2020 presidential elections. The U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia has a clear preference in the election — the same one as in 2016: Donald J. Trump.

The very origins of Soviet intelligence in the 1920s illustrates how an elaborate deception operation named the “Trust” targeted Western intelligence services to spread disinformation and uncover Western intelligence efforts to undermine the nascent Soviet state. Subversion has always been the heart and soul of Russian and Soviet intelligence. Today, its power and reach remain unparalleled, especially in the social media space.

The battleground for influence and manipulation is being played out at scale with the American voter. The size and scope of today’s battle is enabled and accelerated by social media’s artificial intelligence technology that trades in human futures for profit. These platforms facilitate foreign and domestic actors to the wreak havoc within American society by monetizing the human user. People become hooked on the dopamine release of immediate satisfaction.

This is ideal for mischief makers, but only the Russian intelligence service has fully comprehended and mastered it for power and influence. Culturally, Americans are susceptible to Russia’s clever manipulations and Silicon Valley’s fiendish efforts to profiteer human weakness and desires for approval. Platforms such as Facebook are filled with fake news, conspiracies and half-truths, They propagate emotionally charged issues.

The goal is to manipulate and divide humans because it sells. “We just provide a space for people to connect” is the sanctimonious response. What rubbish. They have created an addictive ecosystem that uses persuasive technology to catch, hook and exploit people.

Russians’ mastery in this arena flows from their deep understanding and comprehensive formulations of information warfare, technology, active measures and human psychology. No other nation can muster the resources and skills Russia can with potentially game-altering effectiveness.

Today, we are experiencing disinformation campaigns to create alternative realities. These forces combine to erode the very foundation of our open society and its democratic traditions by promoting a polarized world. By pushing people to choose sides and reinforce that choice through algorithms by rewarding “users” with attention and “likes” ultimately corrodes the social fabric. Exaggeration and overgeneralizations promote narratives that are unrelated to its claims, but that are difficult to disagree with. These scripts are designed to guide the participant to act on these false narratives. Action is the distinguishing characteristic of disinformation and perfect for targeting elections.

A recent Facebook post caught my attention. I am not a regular user, but the post struck me immediately, motivating me to investigate. It was a clever, well-crafted foreign script urging citizens to vote for President Trump. It uses gaslighting and card-stacking techniques against Joe Biden. The list connects several false accusations. The first tip-off was that it was anonymous script that began passing among Facebook accounts like a chain letter. It dares viewers to forward it. It opens: “Not my words but well said: In just three months, it will be over. The U.S. presidential election, I mean. Not the end of the world. But maybe the end of our nation, as we have known it.” The first sentence is apocalyptic and sets the stage for the ultimate influence message: Vote Trump.

While the anonymous tract claims, “I am not pushing a person,” it most decisively is doing just that. “At this point, I am voting for one thing and one thing only. I am voting for the principles for which this country has stood since its founding. I am voting for Constitutional government.” The list goes on to all things everyone would support. The implication is that Biden is against a strong military and economy, freedom of religion, etc.

Is anyone against this?

Then comes hot-button issues for maximum emotional appeal. “Now, there are some things I am voting against:” open borders, a rampant welfare system, socialism including health care, redistribution, reparations, economics, governmental control, pedophilia. This last is a QAnon reference.

It ends with a call to vote for President Trump: “Three months is all we have.”

After years of observing Soviet and Russian active measure methods, this appears to have been prepared by the Russian intelligence service. Repeated misspellings, and strange phraseology are the tells. I further discovered the first instances of propagation came from two fake Facebook accounts.

Do not cut and paste anything like this. Irrespective of your candidate preference, put social media posts in your own words. Don’t empower unknown actors to make you a “superspreader,” be it Russia, China, Iran, etc. Vote as you will, write as you will, but be very, very careful of clever scripts that are replete with misspellings, odd phraseology and overly emotional appeals to the hot buttons that engage you.

Do your part to defend the republic while you still have it.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Paul M. Joyal is a security analyst and media commentator on political and security matters concerning Russia and former Soviet countries. He was a staff member for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

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