I’m in Vienna, Austria, for a few days, speaking to groups such as the Austrian National Defense Academy, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and later today, the University of Vienna about foreign disinformation, social media, and media coverage of elections.
I couldn’t have asked for a more newsworthy topic to discuss; the top story in this morning’s international edition of the New York Times is “Hackers sow discord as vote looms in Europe,” discussing “a constellation of websites and social media accounts linked to Russia or far-right groups is spreading disinformation, encouraging discord and amplifying distrust of the centrist parties that have governed for decades” in advance of elections to the European Parliament. (In case you’re wondering, there are no Netanyahu cartoons in today’s edition.)
So far, the responses from the audiences are encouraging. They’re in that sweet spot of taking the phenomenon seriously but not panicking about it. It’s still not clear that the efforts in 2016 spurred any Americans to change their minds or change the way they voted, but even if it didn’t effect a single vote, we still don’t want foreign-intelligence services mucking around in our discourse around election time and trying to surreptitiously influence American public opinion. We generate enough social and political division on our own, thank you; we don’t need anybody else trying to throw gasoline on the fire.
Russia may have blazed the trail, but other regimes are now running plays from the same playbook. Last year, Facebook, Twitter, and Google shut down a slew of accounts with ties to the Iranian government who “spread memes, articles, and other posts about political topics including race relations, the upcoming midterm election in the US, and the recent confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It also hosted seven events.”
As with Russian efforts in 2016, featuring over-the-top messaging such as the “Army of Jesus” portraying Hillary Clinton in a mixed-martial-arts battle against Jesus Christ and calls for Southern secession, there was a clumsy heavy-handedness to the Iranian efforts. My favorite detail is “inauthentic social media personas, masquerading as American liberals supportive of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, heavily promoting Quds Day, a holiday established by Iran in 1979 to express support for Palestinians and opposition to Israel.”
You think a lot of Sanders supporters are big on celebrating Quds Day? Ever see a lot of folks in Vermont putting up lights and decorations for the big Quds Day parade?
I plan to turn my prepared remarks into an article for National Review, but for a short preview, there are some reasons for optimism. Russia’s main tool for spreading social-media discord, the Internet Research Agency. On America’s Election Day 2018, the IRA could not access the Internet, and remained disconnected for 48 hours. Maybe this was the work of the Department of Defense’s Cyber Command. Maybe this was the National Security Agency. Or maybe some Russian just tripped over a wire somewhere and unplugged something.
Social-media companies are shutting down accounts when they identify them, but the process of setting up an account is meant to be quick and easy — meaning the bad guys will probably always be able to set up new ones.
A key point I’m attempting to emphasize over here is that this represents a circumstance where ordinary citizens can do something to help protect their country; what is threatened by a foreign power is not land or sea or airspace but the realm of our discourse. When we see something false, we can call it out. When we see Twitter accounts with the familiar handle of NAME-INITIAL-SEVEN-OR-EIGHT-RANDOM-NUMBERS, operating during regular business hours in Moscow or St. Petersburg, we can call it out (and I see people doing that more frequently).
Some worry that we won’t be able to tell the difference between foreign disinformation trying to exploit divisions and genuine political activism. But I noticed that almost nothing produced by the IRA proposed any solutions, and when they did propose a solution, it was usually something extreme like “secede from the union!” Nothing they generated suggested that any societal problem could be fixed; it was all about just making you angrier. Genuine political activists are usually pushing for some reform or change in the laws; foreign efforts just want discord for the sake of discord.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that while foreign disinformation and attempts to sow social division are frustrating, it’s also nothing new. I’ve been citing the example of the KGB faking hateful letters and anti-Semitic graffiti back during the Cold War, detailed in the autobiography of retired KGB major general Oleg Kalugin.
Oh, and in one last example of perfect timing, this week the comic strip Dilbert, by Scott Adams, depicts his title character dealing with an “Elbonian cyber threat” and anonymous sources claiming he’s an Elbonian spy.