Perspective: The Russia connectionHere’s How Russia Will Attack the 2020 Election. We’re Still Not Ready.

Published 18 November 2019

In 2016, the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence branch, launched a massive, and successful disinformation campaign to change the way Americans were talking about the two candidates – Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Among the GRU’s most effective disinformation techniques was one known as “narrative laundering,” which aims to inject the Kremlin’s preferred stories – real, fake, or doctored — into mainstream American media. “It is quite possible that these exact techniques will be used again,” Renee DiResta, Michael McFaul, and Alex Stamos write. “And why shouldn’t they? We’ve done almost nothing to counter the threat.”

In 1983, an anonymous letter, claiming to be an American scientist, appeared in the Indian newspaper The Patriot, asserting that the HIV virus which was infecting more and more people across the world was a bioweapon designed at Fort Detrick, Maryland, and released by the United States.

Renee DiResta, Michael McFaul, and Alex Stamos write in the Washington Post that over the next several years, these and similar claims appeared in left-leaning and alternative newspapers, in the United States and abroad. The claims were widely believed among those predisposed to distrust the Reagan administration, and U.S. foreign policy more generally. As late as 2005, a study found that 27 percent of African Americans still believed that HIV was created in a U.S. government lab.

DiResta, McFaul, and Stamos write:

We now know that these claims were part of a massive Soviet disinformation campaign. And as successful as this operation was, the methods it used look modest and primitive in the age of the Internet. During the 2016 election campaign, Russian intelligence used the same technique, known as “narrative laundering,” to inject its preferred stories into mainstream American media. In the 2016 disinformation operation, Russian intelligence officers and their proxies supercharged their misleading stories with real documents: emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

Hackers working for the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence, stole the emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign, and Roger Stone, the Trump campaign adviser who on Friday was found guilty on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering, advised Wikileaks on the selection and publication schedule of these emails so that they would inflict the maximum damage on Clinton and offer the maximum benefit to the Trump campaign.

DiResta, McFaul, and Stamos continue:

Our research, published in a report appearing this week, describes and analyzes the Russian narrative laundering playbook. It is quite possible that these exact techniques will be used again. And why shouldn’t they? We’ve done almost nothing to counter the threat.

Although it is difficult to measure precise effects, the GRU was undoubtedly successful in changing the way Americans were talking about the two candidates at the time.

As our data set reveals, the Russians are now perfecting these techniques worldwide — mostly to shape public discourse on topics of geostrategic interest to Russia, such as the ongoing Syrian civil war.

DiResta, McFaul, and Stamos conclude: “Many Americans are counting on journalism to help lead our country out of an age of democratic erosion and fake news. Journalists only can succeed in that mission if they avoid becoming unwitting accomplices of disinformation themselves.”