How Vladimir Putin weaponized the internet

Russia is using the internet to sow chaos, confusion, and discord across the West

President Putin.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev)

Vladimir Putin's regime is weaponizing the internet to sow chaos, confusion, and discord across the West. Here's everything you need to know:

What is Russia doing?

It's conducting a global disinformation campaign of unprecedented scope. Russia's interference in last year's U.S. election — when hackers stole and released emails from high-profile Democrats — wasn't an isolated incident. Kremlin-linked hackers have been active in French and German elections, promoting far-right parties. They are also believed to be behind the hack of Qatar's state news agency last month, when made-up quotes from the country's leader, expressing support for Israel and Iran, sparked a diplomatic crisis with Saudi Arabia. In addition to hacking, the Kremlin has also launched a relentless propaganda campaign, deploying armies of internet trolls to spread conspiracy theories and attack Russia's critics. Foreign policy analysts believe President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB operative, wants to destabilize and divide the West so it cannot threaten his autocratic rule or expansionist ambitions. Defense Secretary James Mattis told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week that Putin is aggressively "trying to break any kind of multilateral alliance that is a stabilizing influence in the world" and disrupt "the international order."

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Is this a new strategy?

Disinformation and propaganda have been around for decades: Moscow has in the past successfully spread rumors that the U.S. government ordered the killing of Martin Luther King and created the AIDS virus to kill gays and blacks. But new technology has made the process of spreading false information infinitely easier. Russia now has its own 24-hour news organization, RT, broadcasting in more than 100 countries; its sister outlet, Sputnik, churns out propaganda in more than 30 languages. (Sample headline: "Everyone I spoke with in Crimea wanted to secede from Ukraine.") These organizations, backed by hundreds of unofficial Moscow-sponsored blogs, twist or fabricate stories to fit their anti-Western agenda. Their global reach is impressive: Since its launch in 2007, RT's YouTube channel has had 1.8 billion views — more than CNN's.

What else is Russia doing?

The Kremlin has recruited an estimated 1,000 full-time online trolls to boost its propaganda efforts. In tandem with thousands of "botnets" — networks of computers that have been hijacked without their owners' knowledge — these online provocateurs flood blogs, social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and the comment sections of news sites with Moscow's messaging. These "troll farms" fiercely defend Russia from its critics, often by accusing the West of hypocrisy; spread lies and innuendo about mainstream politicians; and bolster anti-establishment figures such as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and French right-winger Marine Le Pen. "The Kremlin doesn't have a preference in terms of right or left," says Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. "It has a preference in terms of useful or hostile." The Kremlin even uses Americans' online footprints to target those who might be particularly susceptible to propaganda.

How does it do that?

By harnessing the vast reams of user information collected by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Much of this data — what an individual likes, or has a strong reaction to — is available commercially, allowing Russia to target people with opinion pieces or fake news stories that might appeal to them. U.S. soldiers, for example, are shown footage of Russian troops acting "heroically" against "terrorists" in Syria; anti-immigration or anti-capitalist bloggers, reporters, or Facebook activists are targeted with stories playing to their ideological leanings. The aim is to get "useful idiots" to spread false or misleading stories unwittingly. "They don't try to win the argument," says Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. "It's to make everything seem relative. It's kind of an appeal to cynicism."

Is this proving effective?

Very. Ahead of the U.S. election, Russian trolls successfully spread false claims that Hillary Clinton helped run a pedophile ring from the basement of a Washington pizza parlor; in France, they circulated rumors that candidate Emmanuel Macron was gay and secretly funded by Saudi Arabia. Nonpolitical disinformation is often designed to undermine NATO, such as recent fake reports that German soldiers stationed in Lithuania had raped a local teenager. Putin and his cronies argue that the CIA also has a history of spreading disinformation to undermine regimes in countries such as Cuba and Iran. "If we do propaganda," Sputnik boss Dmitry Kiselyov recently told Western journalists, "then you do propaganda, too."

What's being done to counter the Russians?

Estonia — the target of Russia's first major cyberattack, in 2007 — has a Russian-language TV channel dedicated to countering Moscow's aggressive disinformation efforts. In Washington, the government-funded Broadcasting Board of Governors recently launched a similar service, and the FBI is reportedly investigating whether the far-right news sites Breitbart and Infowars​ have helped Russia spread disinformation. Big tech firms are starting to clamp down: Facebook, which recently closed 30,000 French accounts for spreading fake news, now allows users to flag false stories; Google has adjusted its algorithms to prioritize reputable news sources. But after Russia's successful interference in the U.S. election, no one doubts Moscow will continue its campaign to sabotage democracy. "They're coming after America," former FBI Director James Comey told senators earlier this month. "They will be back."

Russia's next targets

Hacked emails and fake news were probably only the opening volley in Russia's new cyberoffensive. Investigators have found that Kremlin-backed hackers gained access to voter databases and software systems in 39 states ahead of the 2016 election; in Illinois, they even tried to delete or alter voter data. Hackers also breached a major election-software supplier — a potential stepping-stone to gaining access to voting machines. In other worrying developments, Moscow recently tried to gain access to the Twitter accounts of 10,000 Defense Department employees, using individually tailored messages carrying malware. And Russian diplomats have been found driving around remote parts of the U.S. where fiber-optic cables are laid, suggesting they are mapping our country's critical infrastructure. "They've just got so many bodies [involved in spying in the U.S.]," a U.S. intelligence official told Politico. "It's not about what we know. It's about what we don't know."

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