Spreaders of Russian disinformation in search of a new audience
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Experts are concerned that Moscow is quietly gaining interest from both the extreme left and the extreme right.
After four years of warnings and preparations for possible Russian interference in the 2020 presidential election, this time Moscow’s interference is not as widespread as in 2016, when the Kremlin actively intervened in the electoral process using a combination of cyberattacks and influence operations..
However, this is where the good news ends, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials and analysts..
Intelligence officials and experts warn that Russia is now laying the foundation for future success by interfering in subsequent elections. According to experts, Russia has abandoned troll factories and fake social media accounts to try to influence the thoughts and opinions of American voters. Instead, Moscow has found a new foothold, establishing itself as an integral part of the American news and social media system, trying to ingratiate itself with ultra-left and far-right Americans..
“Many of these campaigns are attracting the attention of millions,” Evanna Hu, CEO of research agency Omelas, told Voice of America..
Omelas, a Washington-based organization, monitors online extremism for defense clients by examining Russian-related content across 11 social media platforms and hundreds of RSS feeds in multiple languages, collecting 1.2 million posts in the 90 days preceding elections on November 3.
As a result of the study, it turned out that most of the messages related to the US elections were published by state-supported media such as RT, Sputnik, TASS and Izvestia..
“We only look at active interactions — when users click on links or share them with their friends,” Hu explains. He admits that the agency’s estimate is “rather rough.” In addition, Omelas found that only 20% of the messages created by Russian propaganda were written in English. Most – 40% – are written in Russian, the rest of the messages – in Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and several other languages.
American officials are reluctant to talk publicly about how much Russia has been able to influence American opinion; partly because measuring the strength of this effect is very difficult. For example, after the 2016 elections, intelligence officials repeatedly stated that while they recorded Russian influence operations in favor of Donald Trump, they were unable to confirm the power of this influence on voters’ preferences..
However, several officials who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity said that it is unlikely that Russia will continue to spend money on these media projects, given the fact that such operations of influence are not producing results..
An August 2020 report by the State Department’s Center for Global Engagement concluded that Moscow “is investing heavily in its propaganda channels, its intelligence services and its proxies.”.
Representatives of the service responsible for the security of the elections in the United States have also repeatedly expressed concern about Russia’s attempts to take a place in the American ecosystem of news and social media. This, in particular, was stated in September by Christopher Krebs, the former head of the Computer and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), advising to always question the information emanating from the Kremlin-affiliated TV channel RT and the Sputnik or Ruptly agencies..
CISA leaders again referred to the Russian-backed media during a press briefing on election day November 3, pleading with Americans to treat any information coming from Russian-related sources with “a fair amount of skepticism.”.
One researcher warns that Russia’s efforts also resonate with far-right conspiracy theorists, who sometimes use propaganda material distributed by Russian proxy sites or RT itself..
“All of these accounts based on (conspiracy theory) Q (Anon) love Russian material,” a source said..
Not all Russian propaganda efforts are directed to the periphery of American politics. Some of the stories they create are everywhere and repeated often enough that they become difficult to ignore..
“So they can get some of the far-right or far-left Americans to pick up on the story, and then eventually a snowball that gets noticed by mainstream media,” says Omela CEO.