Is Fake News the Newest National Security Threat?

By Fall 2017 M-VETS Student-Advisor Anna Dryden

In January 2017, United States Intelligence Officials released a statement concluding that Russian operatives had directly and deliberately influenced the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The report stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin directly ordered an influence campaign for the 2016 Presidential election, to further Russia’s goal of undermining liberal democracy in the United States, and around the world.

Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee stated in one of the early Senate hearings investigating Russian hacking operations that “…every American should be alarmed by Russia’s attacks on our nation. There is no national security interest more vital to the U.S. than the ability to hold free and fair elections without foreign interference…Congress must devise comprehensive solutions to deter, detect, and defend against, and when necessary respond, to foreign cyber attacks.”

The Russian interference with the 2016 Presidential election is certainly not the first instance of cyber aggression by foreign nations against the U.S.

Recent nontraditional conflicts (fought against Al Qaeda, and ISIS for example) have exposed U.S. weaknesses when it comes to nontraditional warfare, particularly the vulnerability to cyber attacks. In 2014, North Korea conducted a massive cyber attack against the private American business entity Sony Pictures. In 2015, the United States Office of Personnel Management announced the data breach that targeted the personal information of nearly 18 million government employees, likely sponsored by the Chinese government. While much is still unknown about the recent Equifax data breach that compromised the sensitive personal information of nearly 146 million Americans, Federal investigators have acknowledged evidence that the attack was state-sponsored, though they do not have enough evidence to point to one particular state.

Foreign countries are clearly unafraid to attack American institutions through cyber measures. There is little doubt that if foreign operatives conducted a physical attack or otherwise compromised the sovereignty of the United States, the nation would be justified in responding. In the case of the 2016 Presidential elections, rather than launching missiles, deploying troops, or even hacking weapons systems or nuclear reactors, the Russians weaponized the Internet. Why has the United States not taken action to respond to, or actively deter, such bold and aggressive cyber operations?

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the world now relies on social media and related technology that has rapidly become an essential fixture in people’s lives. These diffuse social integrations makes it difficult to draw a line between rogue ‘hacktivists’ and a targeted military attack on a sovereign nation. Therefore, policy makers (members of Congress in collaboration with the Executive branch) and military leaders must develop a framework to identify the line at which a cyber attack constitutes a use of force. But it is important to realize, when formulating a response to active measures, that an influence campaign is only one element of a complex, continuing attack, and an effective response will ultimately be targeted at defeating the enemy’s objectives, not just their cyber capabilities.

Politicians and pundits toss around the term “fake news” so often that the term has lost its true meaning, becoming the butt of political jokes, rather than recognized as a means of conducting warfare. However, fake news is exactly what it sounds like—a fake story designed to appear and sound like the reporting of factual events.[1] While fake news has garnered an infamous reputation in the past year, it is not exactly a novel threat. Rather, fake news is a method of waging psychological warfare. Active measures (AM) is a term for semi-covert or covert intelligence operations to shape adversary’s political decisions. Broadly, active measures encompass the manipulation of the media, disinformation, propaganda, the infiltration of social, political, and religious institutions, even assassinations. Generally, active measures conceal or falsify the source, but it can also involve the spread of forged, or partly forged content.[2] Disinformation, or the Russian term dezinformatsia, is one of many active measures undertaken by Russian intelligence operatives particularly relevant to this analysis because it is the act of intentionally spreading false information, such as fake news.[3] Active measures are designed to use an adversary’s existing weaknesses against himself, for the purpose of driving wedges into preexisting cracks.[4] For example, America’s enemies have actively exploited racial, religious, ethnic, class, or political divisions—all cracks that the U.S. has in abundance.

The Russian active measures campaign, in particular the utilization of fake news, relied heavily upon the dissemination of propaganda. Jacque Ellul defines modern propaganda as having the aim of “no longer to modify ideas, but to provoke action. It is no longer to change adherence to a doctrine, but to make the individual cling irrationally to a process of action. It is no longer to transform an opinion but to arouse an active and mythical belief.”[5]

The modern style of propaganda, as recently employed by Russian intelligence operatives is a means of conducting a type of “information warfare (IW)”. The “information war” is not a war in and of itself. It is first and foremost a tactic used to attain a broader objective. In What is Information Warfare, Martin Libdicki argues there are seven forms of IW, including:

(i) Command-and-control warfare which strikes against the enemy’s head and neck, (ii) intelligence-based warfare which consists of the design, protection, and denial of systems that seek sufficient knowledge to dominate the battle space, (iii) electronic warfare radio-electronic cryptographic techniques, (iv) psychological warfare in which information is used to change the minds of friends, neutrals, and foes, (v)”hacker” warfare in which computer systems are attacked, (vi) economic IW blocking information or channeling it to pursue economic dominance, and (vii) cyber warfare a grab bag of futuristic scenarios. (emphasis added)[6]

The Russian influence campaign was not only psychological warfare. The Russian active measures campaign also involved the use of weaponized technology as a means of disseminating the disinformation, in addition to digital espionage and surveillance in order to obtain information. Ergo, it is a unique, hybrid beast of the Digital Age—part propaganda, part psychological warfare, part espionage; wholly, a danger to liberal democracy.

Russia has a long tradition of utilizing disinformation and deception to subjugate populations.[7] Perhaps the original utilization of the disinformation strategy occurred as early as 1783 when the Russian aristocrat Grigory Potyomkin manufactured fake towns and villages in Crimea in order to impress Catherine the Great when she visited the region.[8] In more recent history, active measures became the norm for Russian operatives and have been used to further much more sinister objectives. The Russian intelligence services pioneered (and coined the term) active measures in the early twentieth century.[9] During the Cold War, more than 15,000 KGB agents were actively involved in disinformation operations.

Now Russia is adapting the disinformation techniques to the current state of the art technology through hacking, leaking, and the use of social media propaganda. Moreover, Russia is conducting IW across the globe. Russia has hacked the entire German parliament, meddled in Latin American affairs, and actively influenced African governments.[10] European fears of Russian hacking are reaching a new high. The United Kingdom and Germany (a recent victim of Russian hacking)[11] are wary of Russian influence, and the Netherlands recently hand counted citizen ballots out of fear that Russia had the ability hack and manipulate an electronic voting system.[12]

While Russia has been asserting influence and furthering its agenda through active measures across the globe, the attack on the United States was unprecedented in scale and sophistication. Russian cyber operations against the United States began as early as July 2015, when Russian operatives began collecting information on both Republican and Democratic-affiliated groups associated with U.S. primary campaigns. Targets included campaigns, candidates and staffers, think tanks, lobbying groups, and the party headquarters themselves (Democratic National Headquarters and Republican National Committee networks were compromised by hacking in the past two years). An essential element of the disinformation operation were Russian “troll factories”, located in former Soviet Bloc countries which employed actual human assets to create fictional social media personas which would in turn publish or “post” fabricated news stories hundreds of times a day.[13] Furthermore, the Russian influence campaign relied on sources with direct Russian links, such as Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, intelligence officers, and press placement.[14]  Russia took advantage of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, where many Americans update themselves on the news to disseminate fictional news stories focused on political messages, financial propaganda, social unrest and global calamity.[15] These four themes were deliberately and strategically designed to create uneasiness, distrust of democratic institutions, and panic among the American public.

Russian tactics may have evolved since the Cold War days, but the purpose of active measures remains the same—to exploit an adversary’s weakness. The U.S. Intelligence community has concluded that Russia launched a sophisticated and multi-faceted attack on the United States by utilizing a vast array of operatives, all surreptitiously supported by high-ranking Russian officials. Russia outwardly says it wants “friendly relations”, but the campaign to subvert one of the most essential elements of liberal democracy—fair and honest elections—demonstrates more sinister intentions. The United States cannot permit such interference to go unchallenged or unpunished.

Nations have been spying on one another, and interfering in one another’s affairs, since the beginning of time. There comes a time when surveillance and interference impede a nation’s sovereignty and that interference becomes a true act of aggression. Ultimately, America must ask itself, “How much is too much?” The U.S. Intelligence community has stated that the Russian involvement in the election is a “significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations.” The full extent of the Russian campaign against the United States has yet to be uncovered and as new information is revealed, this analysis could become irrelevant. However, regardless of the outcome of the Russia investigation, there is a need for the U.S. to remain flexible and adaptable in responding to the sophisticated technological threats of the future. As the world is becoming increasingly more dependent on technology, data, and information sharing, the Russian assault on liberal democracy around the world may become more aggressive and more successful.

When America is divided, the nation is at its most vulnerable. While politicians and the public are consumed with quarreling and finger pointing, enemies of democracy look on with glee as they watch their handiwork come to fruition. It is no longer the time for internal squabbling, but rather united action. Fortifying America’s defenses against IW and foreign influence will require a sophisticated, multi-faceted approach. The nation must work together—the public, the media, private sector businesses, and the government—to combat the growing cyber threat because no one component of society, or political party, can do it alone. Failure to act could ultimately mean the end of liberal democracy.

[1] Robert Schlesinger, Fake News in Reality, (U.S. News and World Report) (Apr. 14, 2017, 2:00PM) https://www.usnews.com/opinion/thomas-jefferson-street/articles/2017-04-14/what-is-fake-news-maybe-not-what-you-think.

[2] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement by Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies, King’s College London).

[3] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement by Roy Godson, Professor, Georgetown University).

[4]Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement by Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies, King’s College London).

[5] Jacques Ellul, trans. Konrad Kellen and Jean Lerner, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, 25, (Vintage Books)(1973 ed.)

[6] Martin Libibki, What is Information Warfare?, Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology Institute for National Strategic Studies, 11 (Aug. 1995).

[7] Martin Libibki, What is Information Warfare?, Center for Advanced Concepts and Technology Institute for National Strategic Studies, 11 (Aug. 1995)

[8] Adam Taylor, Before “fake news,” there was Soviet ‘”disinformation”, Washington Post, (Nov. 26, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/11/26/before-fake-news-there-was-soviet-disinformation

[9] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement by Thomas Rid, Professor of Security Studies, King’s College London).

[10] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement of Clint Watts, Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute and Senior Fellow, Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, George Washington University).

[11] Ishaa Tharoor, ‘Fake news’ threatens Germany’s election, too, says Merkel, The Washington Post (Nov. 23, 2016) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/11/23/fake-news-threatens-germanys-election-too-says-merkel/?utm_term=.8a8f8f7c210c

[12] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement by Eugene Rumer, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

[13] Target USA: Anatomy of a Russian Attack (Sep. 17, 2017) https://www.podcastone.com/episode/83/pt1/anatomy-of-russian-attack.

[14] Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections (Jan. 6, 2017).

[15] Disinformation: A Primer in Russian Active Measures and Influence Campaign Before the S. Comm. on Intelligence, 115th Cong. (2017)(statement of Clint Watts, Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute and Senior Fellow, Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, George Washington University).