By LINDA HULL
Rotary Club of Los Alamos
“An America divided is a Russia empowered.” –Bob Hull
Former intelligence analyst Bob Hull spoke during the Oct. 13 meeting of the Rotary Club of Los Alamos about Russian interference in U.S. elections.
Citing non-classified documents, Hull explained that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organization housed in St. Petersburg, Russia has been using cyber-espionage to obtain adverse information about political adversaries for years.
Individuals known as “trolls” are hired at high wages to create “fake blogs and online profiles to flood news comment sections worldwide with misleading, false, or pro-Russian points of view”.
One of these Russian trolls, Lyudmila Savchuk, an activist who infiltrated the Internet Research Agency in 2015, was tasked to write inflammatory features to incite anti-American sentiment among Russians. She revealed that there were several hundred employees in the Agency building at any given time, divided into groups according to their fluency in English and social media skills. They posed as Americans on Facebook and Twitter, using American names, such as “Tyra Jackson”, and stock photos, to create controversy about U.S. elections and race relations.
Another Russian troll, journalist Vitaly Bespalov, became a content manager at the Internet Research Agency at about the same time as Savchuk was hired. He was assigned to make online comments, write blogs, and create other postings. He was instructed to spin the news to create turmoil.
He later became a mole among the trolls and spoke out in 2019. He no longer works for the Internet Research Agency, but does continue to live in St. Petersburg despite death threats.
Marat Mindiyarov, a former teacher, was also hired as a content manager by the Internet Research Agency. He told reporters in February 2018 that hundreds of Russians are hired to influence U.S. public opinion. He told ABC News that “Your first feeling, when you were there, was that you were at some factory that turned a lie into a conveyor belt. The volume was enormous; there were a huge number of people, 300-400, and they all wrote an absolute lie. It was like in the world of Orwell, the place where you have to say white is black, and black is white.” Mindiyarov was arrested and released in September 2018.
Hull went on to explain that “anyone who uses a computer or a smart phone has almost certainly been exposed to Russian propaganda online.” Russia has weaponized social media to spread rumors and conspiracy theories and generate emotional images in a coordinated effort to radicalize the U.S. from within.
Leading up to the 2016 elections, 126 million U.S. users saw posts and other content on Facebook that were backed by the Russian government; another 20 million Americans were exposed on Instagram, with similar numbers for Twitter and YouTube.
“Reflexive control”, a term referring to persuasive arguments to alter others’ perceptions, assumes that individuals do not act rationally, but rather “according to their image of the world and their image of their adversary’s image of the world.” There is an argument for every audience, playing to its suspicions of other groups, whether based on politics, race, gender, or religion.
Hull went on to explain that Russia’s active objectives in the U.S. are to continue to “polarize and disrupt social cohesion, undermine public confidence in government, spread confusion and create apathy, and gain strategic influence over U.S. political decision-making and public opinion.” In political warfare, the Russians have learned that anger drives voters to the polls; disgust divides a nation.
In addition to the U.S., Russia targets former Soviet republics (Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and Lithuania) and European countries, particularly France, Germany, and Poland. They employ the same tactics: planting and amplifying divisive messages and posting fake or doctored photos, all with the intent to stoke fear and anger.
Researchers at University of Pennsylvania found that Americans were influenced by Russian lies at a rate almost nine times higher than citizens of other countries, making them easy targets for Russian propaganda. The same researchers reported that 71% of U.S. internet users actively use social media, as opposed to 58% in France, Italy, and Spain, 46% in Germany and Poland.
Americans have become so dependent upon social media that they are vulnerable to manipulation. As Americans have fewer social in-person interactions during the isolation of COVID-19, Hull commented, “We become lonelier, seeking virtual substitutes through the internet.”
In terms of the upcoming November 2020 election, Russians trolls continue to promote politically divisive messages through phony social media accounts, amplifying the content. Nathaniel Gleicher, the head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook, says that “policing the subversion actions is an incredibly hard balance. Russia’s goal is to pit Americans against one another because they believe a divided America is consistent with their strategic interests.”
In addition to Russia, China and Iran have established similar programs to create turmoil within the U.S. Hull concluded by saying, “The Russians actually do not care who is elected, but concentrate instead on creating disruption, distrust, and chaos within our borders. An America divided is a Russia empowered.”
For more information, Hull suggests the following:
- National Counterintelligence and Security Center– Election Threat Update for the American Public (https://www.dni.gov)
- Understanding foreign influence and disinformation and ways in which the U.S. government is working to secure the 2020 election
- DHS Election Security: https://www.dhs.gov/topic/election-security
- DHS/CISA #Protect2020: https://www.cisa.gov/protect2020
- FBI Protected Voices: https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/counterintelligence/foreign
Hull, an honorary Rotarian, served as a Cold-War Era intelligence analyst for the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East in the 1960s. He has advanced degrees from Florida State and Stanford universities and has been a consultant to various U.S. government agencies, including the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and the U.S. State Department on various issues including those related to unconventional warfare. He is a member of the NM District Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council and the Federal Executive Board – Emergency Preparedness Committee. Hull is also Vice President of the Bradbury Science Museum Association and is now the Chairman of the Board for the DOE’s Northern New Mexico Citizens’ Advisory Board. For the last 28 years, he has lived in Los Alamos and worked as a corporate manager for Los Alamos Technical Associates, Inc.