Russia’s army of media influencers, social media bots and trolls has increasingly amplified alt-right and far-right narratives in the United States since the 2016 presidential election.
Russia’s efforts to push propaganda and disinformation, experts say, are nothing new and extend beyond the U.S. to nations in Europe. But they have seemed to evolve in recent months, increasingly infiltrating and engaging with alt-right and far-right Americans online.
Moscow’s aim is widely viewed as exploiting divides and sowing distrust of democratic institutions, the latter a conclusion reached by the U.S. intelligence community in its initial investigation of Russia’s interference in the presidential election, including overt efforts to push propaganda.
“Promoting content that is divisive – that is the ultimate goal here,” said Lee Foster, manager of information operations analysis at FireEye iSIGHT Intelligence.
“It’s the same in Europe, but the specific themes change,” Foster said. “There, one of the most prominent themes is migration and the refugee crisis.”
In some cases, it is pro-Russia personalities, trolls or automated accounts magnifying right-wing messages.
The latest example is the recent flood of negative coverage of President Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, which originated on right-wing media outlets like Breitbart News and has been picked up by prominent conservative personalities, including Sean Hannity.
The campaign, coined #FireMcMaster, was also picked up by automated Twitter accounts—commonly known as “bots”—that are linked to Russia, according to Hamilton 68, a new dashboard developed to monitor fake news. Separately, researchers at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab identified Lee Stranahan, a host on Russian state-run outlet Sputnik, as one of the most prominent voices behind the anti-McMaster campaign.
“The long view of the Russian active measures program is chaos and disunity among the American government,” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert who developed the Hamilton 68 dashboard, told NPR earlier this month.
“The reason the #FireMcMaster topic is so potent is it’s one of the key themes that you consistently will see the Russians push,” Watts said. “One is anti-EU. They want to see the EU break up. The other one is anti-NATO. And they want to see the U.S. back away from both of those alliances. McMaster’s very much about staying engaged in those alliances, which is different from other people in the White House.”
In other cases, pro-Russian personalities and accounts will push narratives to their targeted audience, attempting to get American influencers to pick up a certain storyline.
Such was the case during 2016 presidential election campaign, noted Foster, when accounts tweeted content copied from the WikiLeaks dumps of Democratic officials’ emails.
“Up through the election, it was heavily anti-Clinton and steadily increased in the promotion of pro-Trump material,” Foster said. “It moved into this pro-Trump realm.” He noted that while these accounts continue to push anti-Democratic messaging, the balance has shifted toward pro-right-wing messages.
A more recent example is laid out by Atlantic Council researchers Donara Barojan and Ben Nimmo.
According to their August 18 analysis, far-right and nationalist activists in the U.S. picked up a narrative pushed by Kremlin-backed media that the 2014 revolution in Ukraine was driven by neo-Nazis.
The narrative, which Moscow has advanced to justify its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, again picked up steam as Russian figures began comparing the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Va., to the uprising in Ukraine. Those pushing the narrative eventually used it to attack Republican figures, notably Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), accusing him of hypocrisy for denouncing white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville but supporting Ukrainian protesters.
“[It’s] this kind of unholy alliance between the Kremlin-funded media and the alt-right activists and influencers,” Barojan said in an interview.
Bots, or automated accounts that tweet at high volumes, play a key role in amplifying these messages online. While some researchers maintain that it is impossible to say for certain in which countries these accounts originate, others say that specific characteristics—such as the times they tweet or the narratives they push–can lead them to reasonably conclude that they originate in Russia, or elsewhere.
Experts say that pro-Russia bot activity particularly targeting U.S. audiences has evolved in recent months.
“They went from being effectively propaganda experiments to being something that is now known tradecraft,” explained Ryan Kalember, senior vice president for cybersecurity strategy at Proofpoint. “You look at the numbers and you definitely see trends toward greater organization in terms of the messaging.”
Some have observed bot activity in general intensify.
“We see that they’ve been more prevalent in a variety of scenarios, not only political discourse and elections but also really in a variety of nefarious or malicious applications,” said Emilio Ferrara, an assistant research professor at the University of California’s computer science department. “They are used to push conspiracy theories, they are used to push anti-science operations like climate change denial campaigns.”
Ferrara published research in July linking Twitter bots that spread pro-Donald Trump messages ahead of the U.S. election to those that circulated disinformation about then-French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron leading up to the May 2017 election in France. Ferrara did not attribute the bot activity to Russia.
Moscow is widely believed to have spread disinformation about Macron, in an effort to prop up far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front. Macron also witnessed his campaign emails hacked and leaked days before the election, though the hack has not been definitively traced to Russia.
National Security Agency director Mike Rogers has said that the U.S. warned France of Russian cyber activity before the hack.
When it comes to pro-Russia accounts engaging in the U.S., they are not solely reaching out to the alt-right.
There are also anti-Trump bots and trolls tied to Russia, Kalember said, that engage with left-wing audiences to push disinformation. For now, though, the engagement is more prominent on the right because the narrative fits Russia’s aim, experts say.
“It goes to show that this is not in anyway a phenomenon that is restricted to the alt-right,” Kalember said. “That’s just a vehicle of convenience for whatever the Russian agenda happens to be.”