Trolls of Moscow: Russian Interference in U.S. Elections

On Friday, the Director of National Intelligence released “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections“, a report which reveals the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 elections. This intelligence community assessment (ICA) was ordered by the President in early December, and the publicly available document is a declassified version of a highly classified document. The report is a collaboration between the three pillars of the intelligence community: the CIA, FBI, and the NSA. While the assessment does provide some insightful analytics regarding the usage of propaganda by the Kremlin, the juicy meat comes from the key judgments and content sections, which focus on the methods of Russia’s influence campaign against the United States.

Cyber espionage and operations played a critical role in the Kremlin’s strategy. According to the assessment, “Russian intelligence collection both informed and enabled the influence campaign”, which was bolstered by the use of not only state-sponsored media, but also social media “trolls”. Yet, more concerning may be the public dissemination of Russian intelligence-collected data. It is estimated that Russian intelligence sources had access to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks for nearly a year, from July 2015 to June 2016. “We assess with high confidence that the GRU (General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate) used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations[.]” As you might have guessed, one of those “victims” was presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The report assesses with high confidence that the persistent goals of the Russian influence campaign were to “undermine public faith the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. […] When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy and crippling her presidency from its start, including by impugning the fairness of the election.”

In the event that Secretary Clinton had won the presidential election in November, Russian diplomats had created a #DemocracyRIP hashtag on Twitter, displaying yet another facet of Russia’s doubt-sewing seeds. As a whole, the influence campaign is a manifestation of Moscow’s long-term strategy of undermining U.S. democracy and the democratic world as a whole, yet this approach shows a significant and disturbing increase in both scale and directness, especially given the active involvement of Vladmir Putin. All three agencies agree with high confidence that the Russian President ordered the campaign and preferred presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The assessment concludes there is no current evidence which suggests that Russia affected or tampered with the actual tallying of votes on November 8. Yet, at the very least, Russia views their campaign as a success in influencing public opinion in the United States. Lesson learned? From the Kremlin’s perspective, the strategy worked, and it can – and will – be used again, whether in the United States or elsewhere in the democratic sphere. Perhaps in four years, we’ll find out what we learned, too.