August 7, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: U.S. Politics in the Disinformation Era
Twitter has become ground zero for a new and developing form of information warfare in which bots work to drive public sentiment and ‘news’ in coordinated fashion. Russia is again the main actor on the information battlefield, continuing the low-cost, high-reward campaigns that it employed during the 2016 U.S. elections. The presumption that social media disinformation campaigns would become less effective as they were exposed as largely state-sponsored machinations has been proven false. The challenge of fact-resistant messaging and confirmation bias is worse than ever, and is now affecting policy and personnel at the highest levels.
On August 5, the President of the United States tweeted out a thank you message to a pro-Trump twitter personality that was quickly proven to be a fake bot account. The fake account, with over 100,000 followers (most of them bots as well), was suspended by Twitter within a day. The episode is just the latest demonstration of the persistent reach of disinformation and ‘fake news’, even into the Oval Office.
President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, recently removed several personnel from their respective positions within the National Security Council (NSC); among them was Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the NSC's 31-year-old senior director for intelligence. The firings by McMaster were viewed as an attempt to re-orient the NSC away from a foreign policy grounded in an ‘alt-right’ worldview—of which several of the dismissed employees were proponents—toward a more traditional, though still quite conservative, foreign policy. The reaction to the firings, and the subsequent disinformation campaigns designed to discredit McMaster, highlight the nexus of ‘alt-right’ and Russian messaging efforts.
Within days, the hashtag #McMasterFacts was a top trending hashtag among hundreds of accounts (both bot and human) that have been identified as either associated with Russian disinformation campaigns, or proponents of ‘alt-right’ ultra-nationalist messaging. The campaign against McMaster exhibits what is now a textbook strategy by those seeking to muddy the information environment: using armies of fake twitter accounts to amplify false or exaggerated ‘news’ stories and associated hashtags, thereby creating momentum around a largely manufactured, but politically convenient, grievance narrative. In this instance, elements of both Russian and ‘alt-right’ disinformation machines share a common enemy in McMaster, who is considered an administration stalwart against both Russian aggression and the influence of ultra-nationalist ideology in the White House. The campaign was so effective at portraying a growing—but largely exaggerated—sentiment of public anger and distrust against McMaster that the story was picked up by the mainstream media, prompting President Trump to make a public statement of support for McMaster.
A new project by the Alliance for Securing Democracy, part of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, has created an online dashboard that shows—in real-time—the latest activity from 600 Twitter accounts identified as part of Russia’s campaign to sow political doubt and chaos in the West. The activities of these accounts do not just mirror those of prominent ‘alt-right’ conspiracy theorists; they create a feedback loop of mentions and retweets that serve to constantly validate and amplify the message. The messaging from this group is universally positive of Russia and fiercely hostile to U.S. efforts to promote democracy and good governance abroad. The massive numbers of directed accounts can be pivoted in an instant toward new targets, such as McMaster, and now, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has attracted the ire of the Russian twitter hive due to his role in the ongoing investigations into Russian influence campaigns during the 2016 election. With both the Trump administration and a large portion of the general public showing no willingness to push back against Russian disinformation campaigns, an uncertain and easily-manipulated information environment will likely be a fixture of American politics for the foreseeable future.
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