view counter

The Russian connectionInsinuation and influence: How the Kremlin targets Americans online

By Andrew Weisburd and Bret Schafer

Published 31 October 2017

The objective of Kremlin influence operations, part of a larger set of tactics and strategies known as active measures, is to make the target population more amenable to Kremlin wants and desires. They achieve this either by gaining a sympathetic hearing of their views, or failing that, by keeping us busy fighting among ourselves. The Kremlin seeks both to sow discord and create chaos in Western societies and rally support for, or limit opposition to, its geopolitical agenda.

The objective of Kremlin influence operations, part of a larger set of tactics and strategies known as active measures, is to make the target population more amenable to Kremlin wants and desires. They achieve this either by gaining a sympathetic hearing of their views, or failing that, by keeping us busy fighting among ourselves. The Kremlin seeks both to sow discord and create chaos in Western societies and rally support for, or limit opposition to, its geopolitical agenda.

One method for achieving that objective is to try and meet particular segments of the U.S. population half way — promoting content and focusing on issues of interest to the target audience some of the time, while presenting Kremlin-friendly views of issues of greater concern to Russia the rest of the time. The strategy, in essence, is to establish credibility and trust within a specific population by expressing support for “shared” social or political views, and then to use that credibility to promote the Kremlin’s more clearly defined goals and interests.

While this tactic has long been used in the real world by intelligence operatives to recruit assets or to exert influence over targeted populations, the anonymity and reach of social networking tools in the digital world has made the process easier, cheaper, and possibly more effective. No longer is advanced tradecraft required to execute a successful influence operation; now, basic cultural and linguistic skills, along with an understanding of trending algorithms, is all that is needed for Kremlin-oriented accounts to insinuate themselves into more organic social networks, including in the United States. And once an account has established its in-group credentials, it can then present the Kremlin’s views on a range of issues — not as an outsider, but as a trusted member of the tribe.

Data collected by the Hamilton 68 dashboard consistently reveals this dichotomy, with a mixture of red-meat content that is promoted to satiate the target audience and geopolitical content that is promulgated to serve Moscow’s foreign policy agenda. It is a strategy that draws on a basic theory of social psychology: people are far more likely to be persuaded by views that come from inside rather than outside their social networks. It is also a strategy that takes advantage of America’s open, democratic information environment — the very kind of environment the Kremlin has worked so hard to dismantle within Russia.