TSG IntelBrief: Investigating Russian Active Measures Against the U.S.
March 31, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On March 30, the U.S. Senate opened hearings regarding Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
• There are now three separate investigations into what is widely believed to have been a systematic social media and ‘fake news’ campaign directed by Moscow.
• While the investigation being conducted in the U.S. House of Representatives has been marred by the appearance of conflicts of interest and partisanship, the Senate and FBI investigations will likely gather steam.
• There is little question that a Russian disinformation campaign targeting the 2016 election is responsible for exacerbating—and in some cases altogether generating—serious socio-political divisions in the U.S.
Though it has been the topic of considerable political debate, there is little question within the U.S. intelligence community that Russia attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Across the board, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that there was a coordinated and large-scale Russian disinformation campaign intended to promote the candidacy of U.S. President Donald Trump. The assessment—which is no small matter—has largely focused on the weaponization of ‘fake news’ across social media. Not surprisingly, the unanimous position of U.S. intelligence agencies on the matter has itself been dismissed as ‘fake news’ by the Trump administration, the Kremlin, and a growing online echo-chamber that is utterly resistant to facts.
Indeed, it is not only American intelligence agencies that agree Russia engaged in a widespread disinformation campaign targeting the U.S. In the opening remarks of a March 30 hearing by the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, both the Republican chairman and the ranking Democrat stated that Russia had previously and was still seeking to sow and exacerbate division in the U.S. political and social landscapes. Given the current political climate in Washington—in which it has become nearly impossible for controversial matters to bridge the intense partisan divide—statements such as ‘sought to hijack our democratic process’ and ‘we are all targets of a sophisticated and capable adversary’ show how serious the Senate views the matter.
The Senate investigation is one of three ongoing inquiries looking into the scope, manner, and impact of Russia’s thinly disguised efforts. From hackers and social media bots, to fake news and Wikileaks, Moscow has bounced between coyly admitting some culpability to flatly denying any involvement. In addition to the investigation in the Senate, the FBI is conducting an investigation into the Russian disinformation campaigns, as well as possible inappropriate contact between Russian officials or surrogates and members of the Trump campaign. Another investigation in the U.S. House of Representatives has fallen into complete disarray, with accusations of conflicts of interests—and worse—being lobbed between the two parties.
It suits Russian interests that the investigation—and indeed the very matter of Russian active measures in general—be framed as ‘fake news,’ a political issue or, best of all, a conspiracy. The U.S. is already so politically divided that Russia and its online army have had to do little more than plant a conspiracy theory, fan the flames, and then watch as it burns across social media and into the belief systems of millions of Americans. The inability to agree on seemingly indisputable facts has created a situation where a sizable segment of the U.S electorate finds it easier to believe that a child trafficking and pedophilia ring involving high-level politicians was run out of the basement of a D.C. pizzeria than it is to believe Russia attempted to foment mistrust in the fundamentals of the U.S. political system. Even if the Senate investigation is able to avoid the partisan rancor of its House counterpart, it is unclear whether the investigation’s conclusions will persuade those who do not like the findings, no matter how explicit the evidence is one way or the other. Indeed, the underlying goal of the Russian disinformation efforts centered on precisely that point; the larger goal was not simply to influence the election, but rather to generate lasting suspicion and mistrust of the overall system.
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