Feeding incendiary documents to news outlets. Infiltrating activist groups. Sowing division and confusion. It might sound like a recap of Russia's efforts to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, but some of these same tactics were laid bare in a CNN television report on Soviet disinformation efforts back in 1983.
The report detailed how Russia was suspected of using forgeries and planted stories to wreak havoc in the West during the Cold War through influence operations rather than with military might. And these tactics didn't stop with the fall of the Berlin Wall. In fact, social media and the cloak of online anonymity it provides have only made it easier and potentially more effective for governments and bad actors to engage in a similar playbook of dirty tricks – ranging from disseminating forged or hacked documents online to creating fake reporters to promote them, CNN wrote.
It's this modern-day digital disinformation playbook that U.S. intelligence agencies will almost certainly be watching out for ahead of November's presidential election -- especially after Russia's efforts to interfere in the 2016 election caught the country off guard. But to fully understand Russia's use of tactics like false news stories and leaked materials, it's useful to examine the country's long history of painstaking influence operations dating back to an analog era.
Jack Barsky, a former KGB spy who lived undercover in the US in the 1980s, explained how it was done back in his day in an interview with CNN Business last year.
The KGB would take great care to furnish a convincing forgery of a U.S. government document, often with the goal of implicating the U.S. in something tawdry and designed to appear to confirm an existing conspiracy theory. That forgery would then be given to a sympathetic, unwitting reporter, sometimes from an obscure outlet in a far-flung corner of the world. It would be printed as news, and if the Soviets were lucky, it might eventually get picked up by more established outlets.
Oleg Kalugin, another KGB agent who lived in the U.S. undercover, recounted in his book "Spymaster" how the KGB paid Americans to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. This tactic had the potential to inflame tensions in the U.S. and give the Soviet-controlled press a negative story to tell Russians back home about their capitalist foe.
In the decades since, our lives have largely moved online – and so have Russia's attempts at disinformation and meddling in U.S. affairs.
In groundbreaking work from the Atlantic Council and the online investigations company Graphika, researchers showed how a suspected Russian group has been distributing forged documents online over the past few years. These efforts included a fake letter purporting to be from a U.S. senator and another letter designed to look like it came from the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.
The same Russian group is believed to have been behind a fake tweet from Sen. Marco Rubio claiming that a purported British spy agency planned to derail the campaigns of Republican candidates in the 2018 midterm elections. The fake tweet was picked up and falsely reported as real by RT, a Russian state-controlled news outlet.
The internet hasn't just made it easier for Russia to create forgeries, it's also helped in their ability to distribute documents, forged or stolen.
Russia's hand in the hack and leak of emails relating to the 2016 presidential campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was well-established by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and assessments from the U.S. intelligence community. In 2016, American news organizations, including CNN, reported the details of many of the hacked emails. Critics argued that by doing so, news outlets were helping the hackers achieve their objective; news outlets argued the materials were in the public interest.
If real reporters don't take the bait, the internet allows for the creation of fake reporters. In 2016, the GRU – Russian military intelligence – used a fake persona named "Alice Donovan," Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation found. The same persona is believed to have posted articles to a popular independent American website.
And while Kalugin's KGB comrades had to recruit Americans to draw swastikas on synagogues, the internet allows for a more sustained and pervasive form of pot-stirring. In 2016, Russians posed as real American activists online, even recruiting unwitting Americans to help run protests and stunts in U.S. cities around the presidential election and divisive issues like race. In one known instance, Russian groups helped organize two opposing demonstrations to take place at the same time at the same location in Texas. The resulting images from events like these were used to further propagate covert online Russian campaigns.
Brush, floss, rinse, repeat. This playbook is not one that is particularly difficult to emulate – and other groups are trying.
Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, has warned that there is currently a culture of mistrust in major institutions – prime conditions to spread disinformation. Coupled with technological developments that make it easy to create and disseminate forged documents and fake news stories, it is almost, he said, a "perfect storm."