The New Warfare: How Foreign Influence Divides Americans

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The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus believed that if you yourself do not choose the thoughts that you expose yourself to, somebody else will. Today, we look at the effect of foreign influence on social media and how these acts are changing the thoughts of a nation.

Influence is a powerful driving force. It is such a powerful driving force, that those who have it are urged to use it wisely. And, when used wisely, influence can be a powerful tool to drive change. But what is wise for one group may not be wise for another, and a change within a society isn’t necessarily one for the good of the group. The idea of foreign influence is one where one group different from another influences this other group in a myriad of ways. This could be socially, economically, culturally, or spiritually.

Throughout history and in modern times there are countless examples of foreign influence. The spread of religion, be it Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, was carried by the wave of foreign influence. Global markets interact with each other constantly, and so our very economies are a result of foreign influence. Culturally, you need to go no further than your local movie theatre – Many of America’s values are spread abroad via the silver screen. All these are examples of foreign influence, be they intentional or not.

Foreign influence can be both positive and negative. It can be positive in that it can introduce new ideas and perspectives that can help a society to grow and improve. It can also be negative in that it can introduce new ideas and perspectives that can challenge existing values and beliefs, and lead to conflict and division.

It is that negative side of foreign influence that we can focus on today. It’s scale and scope is unknown to many. When news media touch upon the subject, they often get it wrong, or gloss over some of the main points, or in the worst cases attempt to stoke some kind of hysteria – The news media’s main selling product is fear, after all. Thus, we want to approach the subject with as much data-backed evidence we can.

Simply put, foreign influence is propaganda. Throughout the world wars, propaganda was popular on all sides, and effective. However, foreign influence truly only became a tool of warfare in the Cold War. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were in a constant state of propaganda warfare with each other. Soviets spread rumours and conspiracies about the United States and how its government acts toward its people. These range from a number of conspiracy theories on JFK, to claims like the AIDS virus was invented by the US military.

foreign influence

While these claims have been largely debunked, the aim of them was to sow discord and distrust in the American people, and to make them think their government was not to be trusted. This is what foreign influence is: The intentional spread of information – true or false – in order to sway public opinion.

Effectively, there has been a culture of cyber-enabled deception operations occurring across social media, probably the most information-dense platform available to Americans, and most frequently accessed. Our freedom of speech means that messages, even if they are disinformation, can go viral and get many more eyes on them than anything ever could in the Cold War. Every social media platform – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tiktok, Reddit; even 4chan and Pinterest, are suitable theatres of war for these deception agents.

During the 2016 elections alone, Twitter found 50,000 automated Russian accounts which were playing both sides of the electorate; hoping to fan the flames of discord where possible. Bots that were engineered with the sole purpose of getting Americans to distrust their neighbour and government.

One primary agent of foreign influence from Russia is the Internet Research Agency, also known as ольгинские тролли – meaning “Trolls from Olgino”. A 2017 report claimed that the financier of the Internet Research Agency was a close ally to Putin, and so likely done on Putins request. The agency have been active since at least 2014, and employee over 1000 bloggers, engineers, and influences to spread disinformation across all social media channels.

One employee of the Internet Search Agency, who fled to the US in 2017, spoke to reporters on his time working there and had the following to say – “I immediately felt like a character in the book 1984 by George Orwell — a place where you have to write that white is black and black is white. Your first feeling, when you ended up there, was that you were in some kind of factory that turned lying, telling untruths, into an industrial assembly line.”

Russia isn’t the only aggressor here, either. China pushes a great deal of influence also, however they have only recently made a switch to more digital methods. China’s reach extends beyond the United States also; in 2018, Australian Senator Sam Dastyari stood down from his position following the revelation that his primary donor, Huang Xiangmo, was heavily involved with the CCP and pushing Dastyari to make pro-China policy changes. China also pushed for the inclusion of a Chinese individual on a New Zealand security council, an individual who spent 16 years working in Chinese Intelligence.

Foreign influence adversaries are also found in the middle-east, with Iran leading the charge in that region. The country has a smaller footprint than China and Russia online, however.

Foreign Influence Divids Texans

In 2016, the Islamic Da’wah Center of Houston was the stage for two different rallies by two different groups. On one side was “Heart of Texas”, a group initially founded on Facebook. The purpose of the group was to “Stop Islamification of Texas”. The second group were made up of “United Muslims of America”, also founded as a Facebook group. They flew under the banner, “Save Islamic Knowledge”.

Both rallies were slated to be at the time place, at the same time. An intentional move, as the founder of each group was the same collective of Russian agents, hoping to make Americans clash.

According to Federal lawmakers, the Russian operatives purchased over 3,000 Facebook ads to encourage people to come to either side of the fence. The cost was $200, a small setback to advance foreign influence.

On the day in question, the two groups organized on both sides of Travis Street in downtown Houston. To onlookers, it may have seemed like a protest and counterprotest. Things didn’t remain calm, as the two sides escalated to verbal attacks and other confrontations along Travis Street.

The details of the day were laid out by Senator Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, who stated that “Russians managed to pit Texans against each other for the bargain price of $200.”

“You commented yesterday that your company’s goal is bringing people together. In this case, people were brought together to foment conflict, and Facebook enabled that event to happen,” Burr said to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch.

“I would say that Facebook has failed their goal,” Burr added. “From a computer in St. Petersburg, Russia, these operators can create and promote events anywhere in the United States in attempt to tear apart our society.”

Stretch went on to tell the Senate Intelligence Committee that the ads were set up in a way to appeal directly to two demographics – Strong conservatives, and strong islamic democrats.

Deomcrat on the comittee Adam Schiff said, “People really need to see just how cynical this campaign really was and how this operation directed by a former KGB operative who is now the president of Russia was designed to tap into these really provocative and divisive issues here in the United States”

Events like these have become more common in the following years. Protests, rallies, and gathering that spark violence and confrontation find their roots on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. While seeming sensible to those they target, it is critical to keep in mind as Americans that we are being played off one another to weaken the strength of the nation as a whole.

China’s Growth Into Digital Foreign Influence

As previously mentioned, China are relative newcomers to foreign influence online. Make no mistake, they have actively been involved in foreign influence for years, but it is only lately that they look at the digital route; perhaps taking notes from Russia given their success in dividing Americans.

China apply a greater degree of sophisticated to online foreign influence than Russia do. Ken McCallum, director general of Britain’s MI5, said “You might think in terms of the Russian intelligence services providing bursts of bad weather. China is changing the climate.”

Since dipping their toes in the digital water, Chinese intelligence has been busy to say the least.

Most recently, Meta (Facebook) stated that they found and disrupted the first known China-based influence operation focused on targeting users in the United States with political content ahead of the midterm elections.

In the report, Meta noted the agents had large followings on Facebook and Instagram. The accounts also appeared on Twitter, though their follow was great degree smaller.

It was a noteworthy discovery, as it is one of the few times of finding concrete evidence of Chinese foreign influence online – Usually, Chinese Intelligence are masterful in covering their digital tracks.

“The Chinese operations we’ve taken down before talked primarily about America to the world, primarily in South Asia, not to Americans about themselves,” Meta global threat intelligence lead Ben Nimmo told a press briefing.

“Essentially the message was ‘America bad, China good,'” he said of those operations, while the new operation pushed messages aimed at Americans on both sides of divisive issues like abortion and gun rights.

According to the report, Chinese agents posed as both liberals and conservatives, using Russias old tactic of playing both sides. They acted by posting well-received political memes, as well as a flurry of comments on the accounts of political figures active on social media.

In total, Meta found the agents were active on 60 sites and had created over 4,000 fake accounts. There was over $100,000 spent on advertising for their propaganda pages.

Following, and perhaps because of Metas report, Mandiant stepped in with their own report. Mandiant are the cybersecurity arm of Google, known for their expert analysis of malware and other cyberthreats.

In the report, Mandiant identified the Chinese Intellgience group Dragonbridge as the main force behind the foreign influnce spread on behalf of the CCP and with the intention of forcing Americans against each other. Dragonbridge were particularly active coming up to the midterms, going above and beyond to try convince Americans not to vote in the elections. This was done using fake news articles as well as fake social media accounts.

Dragonbridge have been involved in three major activies lately:

-Pushing the false narrative that well known Chinese hacking group APT41 are secretly the US Government and not operating out of Beijing

-Aggressive attempts to discredit the U.S. democratic process, including attempts to discourage Americans from voting in the 2022 U.S. midterm elections.

-Allegations that the U.S. was responsible for the Nord Stream gas pipeline explosions, spread via fake news articles, memes, and other methods.

With regards to the news articles, Dragonbridge were found to either plagerize or alter exisiting and trusted news media sites to make their claims more credible.

The report stated that, “Dragonbridges’s aggressiveness, prolificacy, and persistence demonstrate the intent and resilience of the actors behind the campaign.”

Following the report, John Hultquist, vice president of threat intelligence at Mandiant said, “Election interference is no longer just Russia and Iran”

Given the information above and the attempts to shame and divide us as a nation for nearly a decade; Americans need to be more aware of the potential of disinformation than ever before.

In short, we are facing a concerted, ongoing effort by multiple foreign powers to undermine our democracies and our values. They are doing this by flooding our information environment with disinformation and propaganda. The aim of foreign influence is to overwhelm and divide. To breed distrust in the information we consume, which undermines democratic discourse. We need to be aware of this threat and we need to do something about it.

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