Russia exploited social media to target veterans and active duty military personnel — and pro-Trump users helped facilitate it.
Russia exploited social media platforms to target and engage U.S. military veterans and active-duty troops with anti-government propaganda, conspiracy theories, and other disinformation, according to a new study.
The research, published Monday by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, traced the reach of three websites with clear links to the Russian government. The content produced by the websites targeted veterans and troops on both sides of the political spectrum and included everything from disinformation about national security and international affairs to Russia-focused propaganda and anti-government conspiracy theories aimed at sowing discord and undermining trust in U.S. democracy.
The study found that the targeted content succeeded in achieving “significant and persistent interactions” between Russian-linked accounts and U.S. military personnel on Twitter, indicating that the messages are being noticed and reaching their targets — and that they may be having an impact. Importantly, the analysis also revealed that pro-Trump users (both human and automated “bot” accounts) often functioned as a sort of middleman in the interactions on Twitter, either wittingly or unwittingly connecting the Russian-linked accounts to the accounts of U.S. veterans and active duty personnel.
“We’ve found an entire ecosystem of junk news about national security issues that is deliberately crafted for U.S. veterans and active military personnel,” Philip Howard, the study’s lead author, told McClatchy News. “It’s a complex blend of content with a Russian view of the world — wild rumors and conspiracies.”
Tracking The Spread of Russian Propaganda Targeting US Military
The study looked at how social media was used to amplify the content from three websites, all of which have clear ties to the Russian government and specialize in producing propaganda and disinformation targeting current and former U.S. military personnel:
- veteranstoday.com, which in 2013 started publishing content from New Eastern Outlook, a geopolitics journal of the Kremlin-charted Russian Academy of Sciences.
- veteransnewsnow.com, a “sister-site” of Veterans Today that in 2013 began publishing content from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Moscow think tank run by Yuri Profokiev, a former head of Moscow’s Communist Party and member of the Soviet Politburo.
- southfront.org, which was registered in Moscow in early 2015 and partnered with Veterans Today later that year.
To see how social media helped amplify the content from the Russian-linked websites, the researchers used network mapping to analyze the activity of 12,413 Twitter users and 11,103 Facebook users whose accounts engaged with (followed, mentioned, “liked”, retweeted, etc) and/or shared content from one or more of the websites between April 2 and May 2, 2017.
Based on content-related activity patterns and social network associations, the study categorized the accounts into eight groups, or “communities” that overlapped on key characteristics. The categories used to identify communities of Twitter users were similar, though not exactly the same, as the categories used for Facebook users.
Twitter More Influential Than Facebook
While Russia’s use of Facebook has gotten most of the attention thus far in the ongoing investigation into election interference during the 2016 campaign, this study found that Twitter was a much more influential platform for spreading propaganda from the three Russian-linked websites targeting veterans and troops.
“There are significant and persistent interactions between current and former military personnel and a broad network of Russia-focused accounts, conspiracy theory focused accounts, and European right-wing accounts” on Twitter, the researchers concluded. However, Russia’s efforts to connect with the U.S. military community were not as successful on Facebook.
Pro-Trump & Far-Right Twitter Accounts Were The “Network Bridge”
One of the study’s most notable findings was that pro-Trump users and accounts that identify with the far-right appear to function as a “network bridge” between Russian networks and the U.S. military community on Twitter. The researchers found that pro-Trump and far-right Twitter users helped facilitate the flow of information and communication between Russian-linked accounts and U.S. military accounts.
“These interactions [between Russian networks and U.S. military personnel and veterans] are often mediated by pro-Trump users and accounts that identify with far-right political movements in the U.S.,” the researchers wrote.
Themes of Russian Propaganda Targeting US Military
To get a better understanding of the propaganda Russia is using to target and engage U.S. military personnel and veterans, I looked at over 200 articles published between January 2017 and October 2017 on Veterans News Now (veteransnewsnow.com), one of the three websites identified in the Oxford University Study. I also reviewed the site’s ten most recently published articles and the current top ten articles (listed under “What’s Hot”), as well as the 36 most recently published articles under the categories “Foreign Policy,” “Legislation,” and “Lobbyists.” This, of course, only represents a small fraction of the articles published by the Russian-linked website, but the content provides insight into how Russia is using their propaganda machine to target the military community.
The homepage of Veterans News Now features a rotating selection of the site’s latest articles, as well as several different lists of recent and top articles on a variety of topics and subject areas, ranging from foreign policy and legislative news to “in-depth exposés” of lobbyists and deep dives into the culture wars. As you can see from the screenshots below, several featured articles focus on criticizing the investigation into Russian interference, while others promote conspiracy theories about the “deep state” (aka, the US intelligence community), feeding into a narrative often pushed by Trump and his supporters. Other articles currently featured on the site promote conspiracy theories about the Las Vegas shooting, while others fan the flames of the controversy surrounding NFL players kneeling in protest (an issue that Russia was quick to exploit on social media). Anti-Semitism, anti-liberalism, and anti-government sentiment were common themes on the website.
Taking a closer look at these articles, you’ll notice that many of the talking points are quite familiar — that’s because they’re the same talking points pushed by Trump and his supporters. The website quotes Trump regularly, using his tweets and statements to defend Russia and denigrate the U.S. intelligence community and its ongoing investigation into Russian interference (e.g., referring to the investigation as a “Russia hoax”).
In the most meta way possible, one article on the Russian government-backed website condemns Facebook for cooperating with the U.S. government by sharing information about how the Russian government exploited the social media platform during the 2016 election.
“[Facebook] admitted that the ‘vast majority of ads run by these accounts had nothing to do with the election, voting, or a particular candidate,” the Oct. 2017 article says, implying that the Russian ads couldn’t have influenced the election by broadly targeting American society and institutions… such as the U.S. military.
In another article, the Russian-backed website says it’s crazy that the U.S. is investigating Russian interference because… the Iraq war and neocons and Libya and Israel and Hillary Clinton and paid speeches and Anthony Weiner and Wall Street and OH MY GOD HER EMAILS.
The same article, dated Sept. 23, 2017, also parrots one of the favorite talking points of Trump supporters and right-wing media: That “the Russians weren’t responsible for Clinton’s decision not to campaign in Wisconsin and Michigan” and therefore couldn’t have possibly influenced the outcome of an election. (Of course, the article doesn’t mention that Russia reportedly used “highly sophisticated methods” to micro-target ads to specific groups of Wisconsin and Michigan voters).
Does that sound familiar? It should. Nearly every conservative publication in America and essentially the entire leadership of the Republican Party — from the Speaker of the House to former RNC Chairman and former Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — have pushed the exact same talking point for the past year. Below, you can see just a few examples of this.
Issue-Related and Strategic Themes
In the sample of Veterans News Network articles that I reviewed, several prominent themes emerged. These included issue-related themes (i.e., talking points that promoted or opposed certain issues or viewpoints; narratives aimed at shaping perceptions of specific events and issues; etc) as well as broader strategic and operational themes.
Issue-related themes included, but were not limited to:
- Anti-Semitism; Anti-Liberalism; Anti-“Establishment”
- Positive coverage of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, and Mike Flynn
- Negative coverage of Jared Kushner, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Sen. John McCain, Rep. Adam Schiff, General H.R. McMaster, General James Mattis, Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and — of course — Hillary Clinton.
- Anti-Israel; Pro-Iran; Pro-Assad regime
- Framing Russia as the peacemaker and the U.S. as the aggressor (for taking action to retaliate against Russia for trying to undermine our democracy)
- Conspiracy theories about the “Deep State” and the “Establishment” conspiring with liberals to take down Trump
- Promoting narratives about “false flag” attacks
- Fear-mongering about surveillance and “big brother”
- Fear-mongering about immigrants, refugees, and non-whites
- Fear-mongering about terrorism
- Anti-“big-government”; Anti-United Nations; Anti-NATO; Anti-Globalism
- Exploiting issues surrounding race, guns, crime, and the economy
- Encouraging isolationism; framing national defense as overly-aggressive
- Hyping the threat of war — i.e., by warning that if the U.S. does x, it will lead to war.
- Excessive criticism of the media; encouraging readers to seek “alternatives”
Strategic and operational themes included, but were not limited to:
- Invoking democratic values in an effort to undermine democracy (e.g., exploiting the free press to deceive American society and undermine the democratic process)
- Toxic cynicism (i.e., you can’t trust the government, media, science, academia, political institutions, etc.)
- Emotionally-charged imagery and descriptors
- Ad-hominen attacks
- Whataboutism and false equivalencies to deflect from the actions of Russia and its allies (e.g., America went to war with Iraq so therefore it’s hypocritical for America to be angry at the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons against children; Russia hacked the DNC, weaponized the information, and used it against the American people — but Hillary Clinton used a private email server, so why aren’t you talking about that?)
Many of these themes are apparent even in the titles of the articles published by Veterans News Now, as seen below:
Another Front in Russia’s Information War
A series of reports in recent weeks has shed new light on Russia’s use of social media to deploy active measures — a form of hybrid warfare that involves misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, blackmail, bribery, deception, influence campaigns, and more — against the U.S. population during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But this latest study makes it clear that the Kremlin is also using the same playbook against other pillars of American society, including the U.S. military. As Politico reported in June, this ongoing effort by Russia to target America’s armed forces involves everything from spear phishing emails and honeypots to cyberattacks and cyberespionage.
Mike Carpenter, a former senior Pentagon official who specialized in Russia-related defense issues, told McClatchy that the Oxford study shows how social media is allowing the Kremlin to expand the scope and reach of their information warfare tactics.
“This is further evidence of the Kremlin’s holistic effort to try to get inside the minds, computers and communications of our forces to steal information on things such as the locations and deployment schedules of specific military units and to conduct psy-ops (psychological operations) against our troops.”
While the targeting of U.S. military hasn’t gotten as much attention as the use of social media to influence the American populations, the implications of Russia’s influence campaign targeting the armed forces are dire. After all, it’s hard to effectively counter Russian aggression if Russia successfully co-opts those in charge of developing countermeasures.