Earlier this week, the Senate intelligence committee released a pair of reports analyzing the social media output of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian outfit that masqueraded as Americans as it pumped out millions of social media posts aimed at dividing the United States and helping elect Trump,
The New York Times’ front-page coverage of these reports focused on how the IRA tried to influence the black vote, with critics calling that paternalistic. The lead author of one of the studies wrote that her report showed the need for a broad effort to combat disinformation.
After reading these reports, what struck me was something else. I was blown away by the sophistication of the IRA’s efforts, which, the reports showed, had a broader reach than previously understood.
To borrow a line from Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, let’s stop calling what the Russians did meddling. This was not merely the work of some amateurs in what’s often called the “St. Petersburg troll factory.” This outfit had the hallmarks of a professional intelligence operation.
(In my book, Trump/Russia, I’ve written about how the IRA tactics are a modern twist on an old spy game that dates back to the WWII Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Special Services, the predecessor to the CIA.)
Exhibit A is a startling and previously unreported tactic employed by the IRA: Recruiting human assets.
One of the IRA’s more popular Facebook pages was a fake Christian group called “Army of Jesus.” This site offered free counseling to people with sexual addiction.
As one of the Senate-commissioned reports notes, “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability – usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed – is a timeless espionage practice.” People did respond to these posts, although it’s not known how effective these and other campaigns were.
A revealing side note: the “Army of Jesus” Facebook site that offered free sexual addiction counseling originally started as a Kermit the Frog account, then switched to The Simpsons before turning to Jesus.
Other IRA outreach efforts included offering free self-defense classes. Meetup.com was used to organize black self-defense classes for the Fit Black/Black Fist IRA accounts.
The authors of the report “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency” deliver a strong warning about the future of source recruitment via the Internet:
This tactic will be increasingly common as platforms make it more difficult to grow pages and buy ads with fake personas. It will be extremely difficult to detect. The number of organic posts that reveal attempts to engage with Americans reinforces our conviction that influence operations areNewKnowldge, “The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency”
unlikely to be managed without information sharing between the public and private sector.
It also turns out that the IRA was involved in selling merchandise. Some of the merchandise was aimed at building audience, particularly in the accounts targeting the black community. The IRA also sold LGBT-positive sex toys (!)
In addition to a source of revenue, merchandise sales allowed the IRA to gather personal information: names, addresses, email address and phone numbers, as well as credit card information. Once again, this has an espionage application for source recruitment.
Finally, the most frightening thing is that this work continues. IRA accounts remain active. Russia continues meddling in the recent U.S. midterm elections, as members of the Trump administration have conceded.
Make no mistake: The Trump administration could easily stop this activity if it wanted to. It could take steps that really make Russia nervous like sanctioning its debt or banning its banks from any activity in the United States. But Trump won’t do that.
The question is why not?