Russia steps up trolling attacks on the West, U.S. intel report finds

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP
Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP

A new U.S. intelligence report says the Russian government is conducting a wide-ranging and “opportunistic” campaign to expand its political influence in Europe by deploying Internet “trolls and other cyber actors” to challenge pro-Western journalists and spread pro-Kremlin messages in social media forums.

Yahoo News obtained a declassified summary of the report, which also describes the role of two state-owned media outlets, RT and Sputnik, in what some experts say is an increasingly aggressive “information warfare” campaign. According to the report, the outlets promote Russia’s political aims with programming targeted to “activist” audiences including “far-right and far-left elements of European society.” It adds that the RT channel gives “disproportionate coverage and airtime to the European Parliament’s more extreme factions.”

The report, by the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was originally requested by congressional intelligence committees late last year. The panels also asked for a separate report on Russia’s use of political assassination. Classified versions of both documents were delivered by Clapper’s office to Capitol Hill in July.

The decision to declassify brief excerpts from the first report coincides with recent disclosures about suspected Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and other political groups. Many in the U.S. intelligence community believe that indicates Russia has expanded its cyberwar and disinformation efforts to the United States. “This is the 21st century version of ‘active measures,’” said Heather Conley, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a reference to the Cold War term for the Soviet Union’s efforts to manipulate Western opinion by spreading false information, such as the claim that U.S. scientists had manufactured the AIDS virus as part of a biological weapons project at Fort Detrick, Md.

Conley added that the use of “information warfare” techniques to pursue political goals has now been incorporated into official Russian military doctrine. The goal, she said, is not “the annihilation” of the country’s enemies, but to “weaken them from within” by “keeping everybody off balance” and “sowing doubt” about their political leaders and institutions. A report by Conley describing this effort is due to be released by CSIS next month.

Russia’s use of trolls on social media would appear to fit that pattern. A report in the Guardian last year identified a St. Petersburg office building where “hundreds of paid bloggers work around the clock” to flood Internet sites and Western social media forums with posts praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and denouncing the “depravity and injustice” of the West.

Letter to Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence

Michael Weiss, editor of the Interpreter, an online publication that tracks the Russian media (and that is funded by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), said he was personally targeted by Russian trolls after he published an article exposing a frequent RT commentator on Germany as the editor of a neo-Nazi magazine. “They’ve been on a campaign to destroy my career,” said Weiss. He’s found himself attacked on social media forums as a “neocon Zionist propagandist,” he said. A pro-Russian troll even dug into his wife’s Facebook account to retrieve old photos, he said.

Another tactic of the trolls is to inject blatantly false stories into the media, forcing public officials in Europe and the U.S. to respond, according to Weiss and other experts. A New York Times Sunday Magazine piece last year documented how Russian trolls based in the St. Petersburg office had swamped Twitter with hundreds of messages about an explosion at a Louisiana chemical plant that never took place, setting up dozens of fake accounts and doctoring screenshots from CNN and Louisiana TV stations to make the pseudo-event seem real. (The trolls even created a fake Wikipedia page about the supposed explosion, which in turn linked to a phony YouTube video.) Similar methods were used to spread false stories about an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta, the Times account reported.

The author of the Times article, Adrian Chen, now a writer for the New Yorker, recently said many of the Russian trolls he was tracking have begun tweeting favorably about Donald Trump.

Although the activities of the Russian trolls have been aired in a handful of media accounts in recent years, the decision to include references to them in the declassified DNI summary appears to be part of a stepped-up effort by Washington to publicly combat Russian Internet efforts and cyberattacks. The full report covers a much broader subject: the scope of Russian influence operations throughout Europe and Central Asia, including the covert funding of political parties and nongovernmental organizations.

“Moscow has been opportunistic in its efforts to strengthen Russian influence in Europe and Eurasia by developing affiliations with and deepening financial or political connections to like-minded political parties and Non-governmental Organizations,” according to a letter containing the declassified excerpts that was sent this week by Clapper’s office to House Intelligence Committee Chair Rep. Devin Nunes and ranking minority member Rep. Adam Schiff.

“Moscow appears to use monetary support in combination with other tools of Russian statecraft, including propaganda in local media, direct lobbying by the Russian Government, economic pressure, and military intimidation,” the letter states.

The declassified excerpts don’t include specific examples. But a separate report on the same subject earlier this year by the Congressional Research Service, prepared at the request of Rep. Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah, cited as evidence Russian financial and political support for far-right, anti-immigrant European political parties, including the National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary. The French National Front, which is headed by Marine Le Pen and which backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has received a loan of 9 million euros from a Russian bank with close ties to Putin, the CRS report notes, and Jobbik’s finances have been under investigation by the Hungarian Parliament amid allegations that it had received funding from Moscow.