By Michelle Bovée
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s shadowy propaganda machine remains as potent and pervasive as ever, effectively employing 21st century “Internet trolls” to spread disinformation globally.
Did you hear about last year’s 9/11 attack on the Columbian Chemicals Plant in Louisiana, for which ISIS has claimed responsibility? Or the surprising attack on a black woman in Atlanta just a few months later, in early December of last year? If these incidents do ring a bell, you may need to start double-checking your sources. As New York Times reporter Adrien Chen revealed in an in-depth expose released on June 2nd, both of those incidents—as well as a number of others—were hoaxes perpetrated by a shadowy Russian firm known as the Internet Research Agency, which employs hundreds of staffers to professionally troll the web and spread pro-Putin propaganda.
It’s an ingenious organization. As one former staffer told Mr. Chen, each Internet Research Agency employee is expected to post five political posts, ten nonpolitical posts, and 150 comments on co-worker’s posts. This mixture of political and nonpolitical writing is aimed to make each fake profile seem like a real person, with hobbies and aspirations outside of praising Putin’s government and trashing Obama and Ukraine. These tactics have been surprisingly effective: #ColombianChemicals and #shockingmurderinatlanta both made it pretty far on Twitter, despite the fact that all of the news stories and videos they presented as proof could have been easily proven as fake. Had those who helped spread the stories simply gone to the CNN homepage, where the stories supposedly originated, they would have found that the stories were hoaxes. Spreading misinformation and anti-Western sentiment is what this organization does, and it does it well.
Seeing social media used to obfuscate the truth and support a particular ideology, for better or worse, provides an interesting counterpoint to those who praise the powers of social media to spread revolution. The role of social media in the Arab Spring is hard to deny at this point: organizers and participants alike used sites likes Twitter and Facebook to disseminate information, spark protests, and provide an avenue for dissidents to air their grievances with not just their neighbors and countrymen, but with the global community. Social media sites have been called the “enemy of the state” and praised as tools of empowerment capable of sparking dialogue across international borders and raising global awareness of significant issues, even in the face of political repression.
The Internet Research Agency is certainly carrying a message across international borders—but not necessarily a message those who praise the radical power of social media would support. In this case, Agency employees are harnessing these sites to encourage the global audience to support Putin, distrust the West, and spread false rumors about terrorist attacks. Their surprising efficacy only shows how easily the open Internet can be manipulated, whether for “noble” purposes like encouraging political change, or “evil” purposes such as trolling the international community.
These issues will likely only become more prominent, and possibly more damaging, as more social sites are developed and more people gain access to the Internet. At the moment the effects of such hacks are relatively minor: the faked news stories were eventually realized as hoaxes, and it is hard to argue that the spread of pro-Putin, anti-Obama comments across a variety of blogs and news sites has had a measurable impact on foreign policy. On the more disruptive side, however, the social media accounts of world leaders have already been infiltrated. Anonymous International, for example, hacked Dimitri Medvedev’s official Twitter to announce his resignation. These two sides of the open Internet—the benefits and the drawbacks—ought to be taken into account when analyzing the relationship between social media and international relations.
Michelle Bovée is an Account Executive at a business development firm in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area and a graduate of the London School of Economics MSc International Relations program. She is a staff writer for Charged Affairs, where her focus areas include current events and international economics.