Influence OperationsWhy Do the Russian and Chinese Governments Want Americans to Dislike Immigrants?

By Michael Howard and Alex Nowrasteh

Published 19 October 2021

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Kremlin’s propaganda and disinformation arm, employs fake social media accounts, media properties, memes, and bots to conduct what the Russians call “active measures” campaign to influence U.S. public opinion. The IRA’s goal is to intensify political opinions on every issue, and one of the IRA’s prime targets is to deepen nativist sentiments among Americans.

There is a widespread belief that foreign governments and organizations occasionally meddle or attempt to meddle in U.S. elections. The Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans believed it somewhat likely or very likely that Russia or another foreign government would attempt to influence the 2020 election. Respondent interpretations of the word “influence” substantially affect how we should understand this survey. If respondents interpret “influence” as “attempt to affect the outcome,” then most people should answer “very likely.” The outcome of the U.S. election impacts every country in the world, so all countries will naturally attempt to exert some influence if they can. On the other hand, many respondents will likely interpret “influence” to mean an organized attempt by a nefarious foreign government to change the outcome of the election. As committed skeptics of most surveys, we find these semantic suspicions difficult to shake when interpreting Pew’s findings. That said, some suspicions of foreign government influence on Americans are based on evidence that China and Russia have adapted Cold War‐era tactics such as “active measures” to rile up Americans on certain contentious political issues.

“Active measures” is a term used originally by the Soviet Union to describe political activities that sway public perceptions in other nations, support rebel movements, fund political assassinations, and spread disinformation. According to a 2019 review commissioned by the United States Senate Committee on Intelligence, one Russian agency called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) employed fake social media accounts, media properties, memes, and bots to conduct active measures, perhaps reaching an estimated maximum of 126 million users on Facebook.

The viewpoints promoted by the IRA span the entire political spectrum, from Texit to Black Lives Matter. The IRA’s goal is to intensify political opinions on every issue, not necessarily to sway public opinion on any particular issue. For example, the IRA targeted right‐leaning Americans by promoting nativism. Images circulated by the IRA in right‐leaning circles featured anti‐immigrant slogans printed under an American eagle, allusions to the beauty of a hard border between Texas and Mexico, theories about illegal immigrants committing voter fraud, and rhetoric about how illegal immigrant “invaders” must be stopped. In fact, the most successful IRA Facebook page in terms of comment engagement was called “Stop All Invaders.” The IRA did not similarly push pro‐immigration propaganda on left‐wing voters.