Democracy in the time of fake news. Russian troll farms and American elections.

02.11.2018 | By Andrzej Kohut

The United States, 2016, presidential elections time. According to the statistics published by Twitter, approximately 50 thousand accounts may have published links and information following Russia’s instructions. The propaganda reached as much as 700 thousand people. On Facebook, posts published by Russians may have reached more than 100 million citizens! Behind this meticulously planned action was a peculiar institution – Internet Research Agency, based in Sankt Petersburg. Today, it is simply called a “troll farm”.

Russia, if you‘re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” said Donald Trump during a press conference on his golf course in Doral, Fl. on July 26, 2017. The presidential campaign was on the last straight and the topic of the day was the publication of thousands of e-mails exchanged among members of Democratic National Committee. The correspondence appeared on a few websites, including the infamous Wikileaks, and the responsibility was claimed by a mysterious Romanian hacker Guccifer 2.0. Soon enough, his identity was put in doubt, and CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity company hired by the Democratic Party, blamed the Russians. Democrats emphasised that Russia may favour, or even support Trump, because – it was thought – Kremlin believed that Trump, with his record of praising Vladimir Putin, may be a more convenient partner for Russia than Hilary Clinton, who opposed the annexation of Crimea.

Undeterred, Trump replied by calling for the search of the missing e-mails. This way, he was referring to the fact that Clinton – as Secretary of State – used her private Clinton Foundation-based account for official purposes, thereby exposing state secrets. In the course of the investigation, Clinton handed over thousands of e-mails to the judiciary. Unfortunately, it turned out that she deleted some 30 thousand messages – considering them to be private – just after she stepped down as a Secretary of State. Did Trump know that Russians will respond to his rallying cry? We cannot say that for sure, but facts are facts: on the very same day they undertook their first effort to hack Hillary Clinton’s private account. How do we know that?

On October 6th, the Bureau of the Director of National Intelligence stated that the intelligence community in the United States was convinced that Russian hackers were behind the theft of the e-mails of the Democrats. Despite an alarming phone call from Barack Obama to Putin, in which American president demanded Russia to stop interfering in American elections, further e-mails, this time originating from the head of Clinton’s campaign John Podesta, appeared on the Internet in October and November. Did these scandals really hurt Hillary Clinton? For sure, they did not help. We saw that during the election night on November 8th.

The loss was excruciating. Among the complaints on the unjust electoral system – despite losing the popular vote, Trump won thanks to the votes of electors – questions regarding the power of Russian interference began to be voiced. Barack Obama asked the intelligence for a report on that matter. The document was released on January 6, 2017, two weeks before the inauguration of president Trump, and unequivocally stated that the force behind the theft and publication of the Democrat’s e-mails was Russia’s intelligence. But the real breakthrough was the putting of Robert Muller, as the Special Counsel, at the head of the investigation.

Witch hunt

With his long-time experience in the judiciary, crowned with 12 years as the head of the FBI, Robert Muller seems to be a perfect individual to run such an investigation. In Senate, he gained support across the aisle, and the confirmation vote ended with an unanimous result. But even his competencies and bipartisan support did not shield him from numerous attacks of president Trump and his henchmen. According to Trump, Muller investigation is a “witch hunt”.

Not once did Trump try to ridicule the accusations about Russian manipulations of 2016 elections, undermine the rationale for the investigation itself, or even question findings of his own intelligence, which happened during Helsinki summit meeting with Vladimir Putin.

“President Putin says it’s not Russia. I don’t see any reason why it would be,” said Trump, a year and a half after the report of American intelligence unequivocally accused Russians of hostile actions against the United States. However, thanks to the Muller investigation, we have many more reasons that should limit Trump’s confidence in the words of Russia’s president.

How to hack elections?

Just before the Helsinki summit, Muller presented a 29-page long indictment that accused Russians of theft of e-mails and other files belonging to the Democrats. Using malware, Russian intelligence officers (indicated by names in the report) accessed the computers of approximately 300 associates of Hillary Clinton. It took them almost a year to gather data that they subsequently put on the Internet via a special domain DCLeaks, but also WikiLeaks, which was supposed to make the documents more reliable and give them more publicity.

They attributed the authorship of this theft to the Romanian hacker Guccifer 2.0, who was thought to be a successor of an authentic Romanian hacker operating under the same nickname. The move was aiming to build the credibility of the published data because linking it to the intelligence could quickly discredit it in the eyes of the electorate.

At the same time, Russians tried to contact Trump associates in order to establish a working relationship and, probably, to hand over the opponents’ correspondence. It is not yet clear whether this effort was concluded successfully. We only know that the meetings took place.

In the shadow of these spy movie-like actions, Russians tried one more thing: an organised operation on social media. According to the statistics published by Twitter, approximately 50 thousand accounts may have published links and information following Russia’s instructions. This propaganda reached as much as 700 thousand people. On Facebook, posts published by the Russians may have reached more than 100 million citizens! Behind this meticulously planned action stood a special institution – the Internet Research Agency, based in Sankt Petersburg. Today, it is simply called a “troll farm”.

Analysing tweets and posts produced by IRA is a very telling exercise. Those who would expect straightforward support for one of the candidates and lambasting of another might be surprised. In the beginning, Russians analysed American society in the context of its internal divisions, e.g. racial ones. Curiously enough, trolls were able to engage on both sides to add fuel to the fire of the debate.

Sometimes, this went beyond the virtual world. In 2016, an anti-Islamic protest gathered near the Islamic Centre in Houston. Subsequently, a counter-protest appeared. Both gatherings were organised on Facebook. The organiser of both events also turned out to be mutual: the Internet Research Agency.

Muller investigation touches upon other issues, too. He aims to check the connections of Donald Trump with Russia before he became president. He verifies whether Russians colluded with the Republican National Committee. He tries to establish the scale of Russia’s other actions, such as hackings of electoral systems in particular states. He checks if president Trump impeded the works of the judiciary when he tried to limit the investigation concerning his henchmen. But the most important issues seem to be the theft of data and manipulation spread on social media.

What does Russia want?

To date, the collusion between Russians and Trump’s team has not been proved in the course of the investigation. Neither was it established that there existed a prospective cooperation agreement between Trump and the Kremlin. That’s why the most probable answer to the question about the motivations of Russian interference in American elections is that they did it to stop Hilary Clinton.

During Barack Obama’s tenure as president, US-Russia relations did not go well. After the failed reset effort at the beginning of his first term, when Obama decided to forget Russia’s military intervention in Georgia and offered a fresh start, things went off the track. The result was the annexation of Crimea and American sanctions on Russian businesses. For Kremlin, it became evident that the chances for rapprochement with the Democratic administration are low. And Hillary Clinton guaranteed that Obama’s foreign policy would be continued because she was responsible for its shape as a Secretary of State (though she was no longer in the State Department when the conflict in Ukraine broke out).

Elections in 2016 brought around an unexpected result. Clinton won in the popular vote but gathered less electoral votes. The final result was determined by approximately 100 thousand votes in a few states, which is not much in the light of the total of almost 130 million votes cast on that day. We will never know whether it was Russians who tipped the balance in Trump’s favour, but the numbers show that it was not that improbable.

Russia undertook an effort to realise its great-power aspirations by utilising methods which might be considered asymmetrical. True, this term is typically intended for car bombs or hijackings, that is for methods of fighting used by a weaker state or organisation that allow them to prolong a struggle against a more powerful opponent.

There is no open conflict between the US and Russia, and the measures taken did not have a military character. But there are some similarities. Unexpectedly utilising technology and bending the existing rules, a state that is theoretically weaker tried sabotage on the enemy’s territory. Consequences might be serious. And we are not talking only about an immediate effect, meaning a potentially more benign American foreign policy towards Russia.

Democracy on fire

The most outstanding thing is the relatively low cost of the Russian operation. Maintaining a dozen professional hackers and hiring a few tens, even a few hundred people charged with manipulation on social media is nothing compared with the cost of a tank or an aircraft. In theory, even small states with a low military budget could afford that. And attacks of this kind are tough to counter.

We got used to the fact that important state institutions, such as the army or banks, need to invest in cybersecurity because otherwise many key data might fall prey to the cyber “unknown perpetrators”. But such complex security methods are not normally used in case of private or social media correspondence, although dialogues similar to those tapped in “Sowa and Przyjaciele” (the restaurant, where some of the Polish government members were recorded, with some tapes still not published) can be eavesdropped on the Internet without unnecessary costs.

Manipulation of social media is even more alarming. At the time of information bubbles and ubiquitous fake news, when emotions are often more compelling than facts, social emotions can be manipulated with Facebook and Twitter accounts’ help.

The analysis of the Internet Research Agency posts revealed by the investigators shows that the support for particular candidacy or case is not always the aim of manipulators.

They can also invest in enhancing social divisions, polarisation, or making the reconciliation between feuding political parties more difficult. An internally divided state is a weak state and the one that is vulnerable to external influence. The 18th-century history of Poland is a painful reminder of this fact. Looking at the results of Muller investigation, we cannot sleep calmly.

Translation from Polish: Łukasz Gadzała


This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.