A photo illustration of a man on a tablet in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, October 2013
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

On October 7 of last year, the Twitter account @hakkidin tweeted what appeared to be a heartfelt message of congratulations: “I’d like to wish our president, our supreme commander-in-chief Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin a Happy Birthday. I wish him strength, success in his difficult work and thanks for a powerful, flourishing fatherland. THREE CHEERS IN HONOR OF OUR PRESIDENT’S BIRTHDAY!” But @hakkidin, who tweets in Russian and whose profile picture is of the Russian Civil War hero Vasily Chapayev, was not a patriotic citizen expressing a spontaneous outpouring of love for Putin. He was a Russian troll.

Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election and the subsequent investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller vaulted the issue of information warfare to global attention. That Russia and other rogue states have used social media to influence everyone from American voters to British participants in the Brexit referendum to partisans of Libya’s civil war is now well known. What is still often missed, however, is that most state-sponsored social media disinformation campaigns are aimed at domestic rather than foreign audiences. The old adage attributed to former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local” doesn’t quite describe the disinformation wars playing out on Twitter and Facebook—but it comes close. The global phenomenon of social media disinformation isn’t rooted in geopolitics but rather in domestic politics.

That simple insight has profound implications for those seeking to counter disinformation online. After all, if Russian campaigns attacking the United States employ narratives actually designed for domestic consumption, the United States must respond with Russian voters in mind. Otherwise, it risks amplifying rather than suppressing the Kremlin’s false narratives. Deterrents that fuel the machines they are intended to stop are not deterrents at all.

THE AUTOCRAT’S REAL AUDIENCE

Most government-sponsored disinformation operations on social media are domestic in scope. The Empirical Studies of Conflict Project at Princeton University has compiled a list of 18 countries that have conducted domestically focused social media influence campaigns but only six that have sought to influence foreign nations—among them China, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. A recent report by Facebook pointed to a similar conclusion, documenting recent campaigns on its platform that targeted domestic audiences in four countries for domestic purposes. Only one of these countries, Iran, also targeted foreign audiences—predominantly within the region, seeking to influence Facebook users in Iraq and Israel. 

Even the trolls of the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Internet Research Agency, infamous for their efforts to boost Donald Trump’s electoral fortunes in 2016, cut their teeth tweeting in Russian for a Russian audience. In 2014, for the first six months they were active, they engaged exclusively with Russian audiences before tentatively beginning to work in English and Ukrainian. But even then, the IRA trolls never stopped trying to shape the domestic conversation in Russia. Twitter has publicly identified more than nine million tweets from IRA trolls between 2014 and 2018, more than half of them in Russian.

In recent weeks, our research team at Clemson University has identified a network of hundreds of inauthentic Russian-language Twitter accounts that work in a manner similar to those run by the IRA. This network routinely amplifies Russian state media, repeats Kremlin talking points, and attacks Western democracies. The accounts are smart and witty. Their profile images include a mix of historical references, attractive women, artistic whimsy, and contemporary memes. Some accounts are thematic—one communicates almost entirely in cat memes—but all of them are loyal to Putin. The account @hakkidin was not the only one to send the Russian leader birthday wishes.

A selection of profile pictures from pro-Putin social media accounts
A selection of profile pictures from pro-Putin social media accounts
Darren Linvill

The users of these accounts purport to be ordinary Russian citizens, sharing their views on domestic issues important to the regime, such as COVID-19 and Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader poisoned by Russian security agents in August and later sentenced to nearly three years in a Russian penal colony. The Kremlin is clearly anxious to control the narrative around Navalny, and its trolls are doing all that they can to discredit him. “The West needs a weak Russia, but our people do not. Let’s not let Navalny with his friends destroy our country. Don’t be fooled by all their provocations,” tweeted one of the fake Russian-language accounts we identified. Other accounts paint Navalny as an ineffectual puppet of the West, whose politics and even whose sexuality are suspect. The trolls go as far as warning Russian parents, ironically, that their children might fall prey to pro-Navalny, American disinformation online.

While these trolls describe Navalny and the West as weak and reprehensible, they hail Putin and his regime as heroic. Nothing exemplifies this narrative better than the trolls’ reports of Russia’s fight against COVID-19. The accounts boast of the valiant efforts of Russian health-care workers and trumpet the effectiveness of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, noting with fanfare each time another grateful nation purchases doses. And just as the trolls have a political villain in Navalny, they have a pandemic villain as well: the “criminal” Anastasia Vasilyeva, an outspoken medical doctor who has criticized the Kremlin’s response to COVID-19.

That Russia should have local disinformation campaigns tailored for domestic audiences is perhaps not surprising. But the Kremlin’s outward-facing, offensive information operations seek to shape Russian public opinion, as well. According to The Wall Street Journal, for instance, Russian intelligence is likely behind an online English-language campaign to undermine confidence in Western COVID-19 vaccines, claiming that their developers cut corners and that they have serious side effects. This narrative fits perfectly with what Putin is telling his own people: you can’t trust the West.

Russia’s long-standing social media campaigns to sow disinformation about the United States and other NATO countries are similarly designed to undermine Russian as well as Western trust in democratic institutions. While Kremlin-backed English-language accounts stoked fear about election fraud and racial discrimination during the 2020 U.S. election, Russian-language accounts carried breathless reports of missing American ballots and later, even more chilling suggestions of mysterious extrajudicial disappearances following the riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6. “Why is the fate of the people who participated in the storming of the Capitol completely unknown?” tweeted one account linked to the network we identified. These foreign and domestic campaigns reinforce each other. Together, they portray the United States as a failing democracy and make Russia’s problems look mild by comparison. Putin, like all modern autocrats, understands that envy is the thief of joy.

THE TRUTH ABOUT DISINFORMATION

The fact that authoritarians such as Putin push disinformation about the West in large part to shape domestic public opinion has gone mostly ignored in discussions about how to understand and respond to such campaigns. To date, the U.S. response to disinformation attacks by foreign actors has consisted of little more than a few toothless indictments of Russian officials and the seizure of Iranian Web domains. Weak as they are, such measures aim to deter foreign influence campaigns on the assumption that Americans are their main targets.

U.S. President Joe Biden has talked tougher than his predecessor, calling Putin a soul-less “killer” who “will pay a price” for meddling in the 2020 election. But Biden’s administration has made the same mistake as President Donald Trump’s administration in assuming that the Russian leader’s primary objective is to shape American public opinion. Biden’s blustery rhetoric may or may not deter future influence campaigns, but it also has the potential to fuel Putin’s authoritarian propaganda machine. Already, the Russian leader has responded to Biden by challenging him to a live debate about who is the real killer, a move that the Russian media has spun to Putin’s advantage. At the same time, the Russian troll network has been working overtime, amplifying the Kremlin’s narrative and calling Biden “old and senile.”

One possible “price” that the Biden administration could impose would be economic sanctions. These may be a better deterrent than rhetoric alone, but sanctions would also bolster the victim narrative that Putin and other authoritarians feed to their people, making them a double-edged sword. Sanctions would also risk painting Putin as more powerful and technically savvy than he really is. Disinformation operations are, after all, fundamentally asymmetrical tactics.

A more effective response to foreign disinformation campaigns would be to identify, analyze, and expose the operations—especially those that authoritarian regimes aim at their own people—rather than trying to deter them. Because many influence campaigns are conducted on private social media platforms, such a response cannot come from government alone. Twitter has taken some admirable steps in releasing content from coordinated disinformation operations that it attributes to state actors. But Twitter and other social media platforms, especially Facebook and Google, can do more to expose the insidious ways authoritarian regimes target their own people with coordinated campaigns of social media lies.  

More broadly, U.S. responses to foreign state-backed disinformation campaigns must be tailored to the domestic politics of the perpetrating nation. These responses should speak directly to the citizens of that country, helping them understand how and why their government is attempting to manipulate them—without feeding the propaganda narratives that keep autocrats in power. Disinformation is a desperate authoritarian tactic intended to obscure the facts and thereby confuse and suppress the opposition. Revealing the truth about disinformation saps the power of those who use it. But to do so, Biden will need a nuanced and locally tailored approach—not a one-size-fits-all strategy. All politics is local, after all, including the politics of disinformation.

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  • DARREN LINVILL is Associate Professor of Communication at Clemson University and a lead researcher at the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub.
  • PATRICK WARREN is Associate Professor of Economics at Clemson University and a lead researcher at the Clemson University Media Forensics Hub.
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