Protestors march on Trump Tower after the 2016 election. Credit: KENA BETANCUR/AFP via Getty Images

September 29, 2020   6 mins

In July 1983, an article entitled ‘Aids may invade India: Mystery disease caused by US experiments’ appeared in The Patriot, an obscure Soviet-sponsored publication printed in New Delhi. The piece made a bombshell accusation: that the AIDS virus had been invented by the US military as a biological weapon to kill black Americans. This genocidal conspiracy theory has since been thoroughly debunked: the virus is now understood as having originated in non-human primates. But in 1986, a ‘scientific’ report by one Professor Jacob Segal bolstered the claim that AIDS was man-made.

It soon transpired that Professor Segal was a retired 76-year-old biophysicist, living in the Soviet-controlled puppet state of East Germany. But by then it was too late. Critical faculties, as we know, can go out the window during pandemics — whisper ‘scientific evidence’, and frightened people will believe what you say.

The Soviets knew this. As the AIDS epidemic worsened, the lie that the virus was created in a Pentagon laboratory proliferated in the Soviet press, which widely cited the Segal report. The Soviet news agencies TASS and RIA Novosti, which together had over 100 bureaus worldwide, amplified the story; it began to go viral, appearing in dozens of sympathetic or unsuspecting newspapers around the globe. By the end of the decade, it had appeared in major outlets in more than 80 countries. This disinformation campaign, codenamed ‘Operation Infektion,’ was the most successful of the Cold War.

Its legacy is felt to this day. The genocidal conspiracy theory is disproportionately believed in black American communities — to the extent that it hinders HIV prevention. One survey of black Americans found that 48% believed that AIDS was an artificially made virus, and 27% believed it was made in a government laboratory.

And although the Cold War is over, the old Soviet strategy of race-baiting as a form of information warfare against America lives on. Indeed, the techniques have only become more potent, as our modern information architecture — the Internet, smartphones and social media — makes it infinitely easier for bad actors to disseminate disinformation quickly and widely.

As the battle for America’s soul threatens to rip the country apart ahead of November’s election, race has become one of the key partisan battlegrounds. This is being exploited with devastating precision by the Russians — who’ve been refining their methods for years. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller found in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election, the Kremlin started laying the groundwork in 2013 — well before Donald Trump had even announced his candidacy. That year, it set up the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — a unique mash-up between a digital marketing and intelligence agency, whose task was to experiment with social media to fuel polarisation in American society. Race was one of the most fertile battlegrounds.

In mid-2014, IRA agents travelled to the United States in an “intelligence gathering mission” in order “to obtain information and photographs for use in their social media posts”. Then, from their base in St Petersburg, they built fake pages, communities and personas that looked authentically American. These included ostensibly Left-wing groups like ‘Black Matters’, which targeted black Americans by appearing close to ‘Black Lives Matter’. This disinformation project was known as ‘Operation Lakhta’.

A paid ad sponsoring the IRA’s ‘Black Matters’ page on Facebook

Paid ads publicising the group went straight for the jugular: this one features photos of three young black Americans — Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray — who were killed either in police shootings or custody. Rice was only 12. He had allegedly been shot on sight for playing with a toy gun.

Once they had ensnared followers, and as the election grew closer, groups like ‘Black Matters’ became a vehicle for the IRA’s attempts to suppress the black Democrat Vote. Agents posted emotive narratives of political alienation, suggesting that Hillary Clinton did ‘not care for Blacks’, or that a race between Trump and Clinton was ‘one that Black people should sit out’.

But the IRA wasn’t just baiting black voters on the Left; it was also targeting white voters on the Right. Again, race was the trump card. Agents set up pro-police social media groups that promoted the so-called ‘Blues Lives Matter’ movement. In a sponsored ad for one of these pages called ‘Being Patriotic’, the IRA urged white conservative Facebook users to ‘like’ its page by pushing anti-BLM content. These ads were just as emotive as the ones aimed at black voters. The one pictured below, in the full text, attacks Hillary Clinton — warning that she is the ‘main hardliner against cops,’ and that Donald Trump is the ‘one and only who can defend the police from terrorists’.

‘Being Patriotic’ Promoted Page on Facebook

As the IRA’s operation grew, it found it could socially-engineer the real-life actions of American citizens — manipulating many, for instance, into attending political rallies organised and promoted from St Petersburg. Donald Trump’s campaign unwittingly boosted one such event on its Facebook page, but the IRA also ran anti-Trump rallies after he won the election. One, organised on the ‘Black Matters’ page, managed to convene up to 10,000 protestors in Manhattan’s Union Square, who then marched on Trump Tower, four days after the Republican victory. ‘Join us in the streets! Stop Trump and his bigoted agenda!’ said the Facebook event page for the rally. ‘Divided is the reason we just fell. We must unite despite our differences to stop HATE from ruling the land.’ The tragic irony, of course, being that division was exactly what the Russians were exploiting.

The Democratic House Intelligence Committee has publicly released a cache of IRA social media advertisements from between 2015 and 2017, demonstrating how prolific they were. On Facebook alone, the IRA purchased 3,393 ads, which 11.4 million Americans were exposed to. They built 470 Facebook pages, and created 80,000 pieces of organic content, which reached over 126 million Americans.

It is difficult to quantify the extent of the IRA’s influence; it’s worth bearing in mind that the election that was decided by just 70,000 votes. It would be naïve to attribute Trump’s victory wholly to Russian interference, but it is nevertheless clear that the poison the IRA injected into US public discourse has played some part in making it increasingly febrile.

And now the 2020 election looms. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and global BLM protests, race has re-emerged as the critical dividing line. And Russia is better placed than ever to exploit it, with methods that grow more sophisticated with every passing month. Though the situation is developing as you read this, there are already some clues as to how their tactics are evolving.

On 12 March 2020, CNNTwitter, Facebook and the network analytics firm Graphika exposed another disinformation operation. While Project Lakhta was run by IRA agents in St Petersburg, by 2020 the work had been outsourced to Ghana, where the IRA was operating behind the front of a fake NGO called Eliminating Barriers to the Liberation of Africa. EBLA had office buildings, employees and a website, which at first glance looked legitimate — it referred to an array of ‘projects’ and had a big ‘donate’ button. On closer inspection, the façade crumbled. The donate button did not work, the site was populated with Latin-stock text, and one of its projects claimed to have raised $231.53 billion — over three times Ghana’s annual GDP​.

The IRA had employed Ghanaian operatives to entice black Americans to join online communities, then post positive messages that would encourage them to have pride in their racial identity. Agents would then start to feed these manufactured communities negative messages, making followers feel angry and isolated. The aim was to alienate black voters from the rest of society. The Ghanaian operatives were encouraged to play with content to see what would resonate and what would go viral, just as the IRA agents have done since 2013. EBLA employees had access to a library of memes and images — many simply recycled from the IRA’s stock, built up at the time of the last election.

It was not hard for these operatives to guess that they were targeting American audiences — particularly because they were told to post content on social media during the late afternoon and night in local Ghanaian time, to correspond with US daytime. Still, it would have been quite a leap for them to figure out that they were being unwittingly used as agents of a Russian disinformation campaign. This split-level subterfuge — practised on both Americans civilians and Ghanaian operatives — led the operation to be dubbed ‘Double Deceit.’ That it had been outsourced to African soil made it even harder to trace, and fight, the true perpetrators of this assault on America.

It’s reassuring to think that Operation Double Deceit was exposed, but it would be surprising if Russia doesn’t have other irons in the fire ahead of this year’s election. Perhaps more worrying, though, is that Russian disinformation against the United States has become a hyper-partisan political issue. With one side paranoid about Russia — seeing it everywhere — and the other denying that Russia is a threat at all, the Kremlin’s strategy is working beautifully.

While armed vigilantes and pro-and anti-BLM protestors were filling the streets of America earlier this year, these divisions were being weaponised by foreign actors; Americans, meanwhile, were too busy downplaying or magnifying the Russian threat for their own ends to organise any coherent response. Obviously, this does nothing to help race relations. In fact, extreme partisanship undermines the security of the entire nation, by blinding Americans to the real threats.

When the dust settles in the wake of the 2020 race, the US is likely find that, yet again, it was too slow to understand and react to foreign psychological operations.

Nina Schick is an author and broadcaster, specialising in how technology and Artificial Intelligence is reshaping politics. She has advised global leaders on deepfakes, including Joe Biden and the former Secretary-General of NATO.