The Presence of Adversary Media in the United States
As you scroll through your Facebook newsfeed, a video appears from an unknown news network called In The Now. The video, and the page itself, has thousands of views and likes. In the video you see a Seattle police officer roll his bike over a protestor’s head. “Do bike cops train for this?” the video asks, as ominous music plays in the background. You ask yourself the same question. Commenters on the video seem outraged. Scrolling down In The Now’s page, you see other videos showing similar scenes in different cities. “This seems to be happening everywhere,” you think.
Geopolitical adversaries seek to disrupt and influence American citizens’ perceptions of U.S. policy and global events; this, by now, is a widely-reported phenomenon. The manipulation of traditional and social media environments is one particularly effective method of influencing large audiences in an organized manner. By controlling the narratives an audience sees – even if the stories behind the narratives are entirely real and truthful, as in the case of the Seattle police officer – an adversary can control how that audience interprets the world around them.
Russia operates and funds a wide range of news websites and social media accounts that Novetta analysts refer to colloquially as “lookalikes.” They are sites and pages, like In The Now and USA Really, that are intentionally camouflaged to appear as though they are normal, everyday, American-made and American-owned news platforms. Like the strategies behind them, these sites are sophisticated: journalist names appear to be American, article formats are typically Western, there is no foreign branding, and the familiarity with the minutiae of domestic U.S. politics seems as if it could only have come from local journalists with their ears to the ground. Typical indicators of foreign influence – poor English, the use of terms not common in U.S. vernacular, political ideas not held by average Americans – are rarely detectable. And Russia is not alone in this practice; China, Iran, and other adversaries engage in the same “lookalike” media manipulation tactic, with varying levels of complexity and sophistication.
To date there have been relatively few systematic efforts undertaken to understand exactly how adversaries like Russia are attempting to shape Americans’ perceptions of their fellow citizens and the U.S. government. We built Novetta’s Influence database to do just that.
How Novetta Tracks & Analyzes Adversary Media in the United States
We created the Influence database using Novetta Mission Analytics (NMA), our media and data analysis platform that conducts real-time pattern and behavioral analysis of open source content. NMA uncovers patterns and shifts in the behavior of people, groups, and other entities in the media based on data-driven analysis of what those entities post, tweet, write, or say. NMA populated the Influence database with content from several known “lookalike” sites operated by Russia, Iran, and China during the summer of 2020. Novetta then applied NMA’s unique human-in-the-loop and machine learning fusion process to enrich the content with data markers identifying narrative topics, sentiments, locations, and speakers. This process was applied to each line of article text, each Facebook post, and each tweet emanating from these sites and pages.
The result: Novetta was able to uncover trends in how camouflaged “lookalike” Russian (and Chinese and Iranian) media draw in U.S. audiences and manipulate how we perceive our government, our fellow citizens, and America’s role in global politics.
Influence Database Metadata Application Process
How Russian Lookalike Media Influence U.S. Readers
In a 60-day June-August 2020 study of several Russian “lookalike” media outlets built to influence American audiences, a few things immediately became clear in our analysis of 1,300 individual posts, tweets, and articles: Russian media is savvy and in tune with American youth vernacular. They have a specific (young and left-leaning) American target audience in mind. And, at least as of summer 2020, Russian media networks are more interested in turning U.S. audiences against their fellow citizens than in criticizing the American government itself.
Russian media like In The Now, USA Really, Soap Box, Ruptly, and others want the American media consumer to be incredulous at the behavior and outdated, narrow-minded viewpoints of their fellow citizens.
During the two-month period in which Novetta analyzed, Russian media reporting prioritized race relations and tensions throughout the U.S., even after protests associated with Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd had waned by mid-summer. Sourcing pictures and videos from local U.S. citizens’ cellphone videos and using contemporary slang like “Karen” to refer to wrongdoers, Russian media highlighted white Americans claiming things like “Black lives don’t matter at all to me […] blacks have been coddled for years!” in posts that resonated on social media, collecting hundreds of likes and shares. Highlighting crimes that Americans commit against each other, police brutality against Black Americans, protests, and deaths that occur as a result of racial, ethnic, or religious mistreatment were also focuses of Russian media that Novetta collected in the Influence database. Moreover, these media “lookalikes” reported on similar stories from all over the U.S., including locales where one would think Russian media have no interest in operating, such as Wisconsin, Florida, and Michigan.
A breakdown of the specific topics and sentiments employed by Russian “lookalike” media, as exported from the Influence database itself, can be seen here:
Russia’s overarching strategy is evident in the topic and sentiment focuses exhibited in the data above. Given the youth-leaning language, the anti-establishment and social justice characteristics of the content, and what we know about the interests of Russia itself vis-à-vis the U.S., the following seems likely: Russia probably recognizes that popular social movements and contentious politics are the likeliest means of introducing instability and polarizing American citizens. To achieve this goal, they have focused their messaging on wedge issues that leverage any exploitable opportunity to foment discord among the American public and to produce strong emotional reactions across the political spectrum. Hot-button topics like discontent with the Trump administration, distrust and defunding of police forces, and Americans’ right to protest – combined with U.S. officials’ and politicians’ use of populist rhetoric that mischaracterizes the morals, character, and goals of the opposing side – provide the perfect atmosphere to sow discord. Lastly, Russia almost certainly sees opportunities in the collapse of Americans’ trust in “mainstream” media and journalism, once the trusted sources of facts, evidence, and transparency, those keystones of democracy.
When considering Russia’s likely intended goals, two other notes should be kept in mind:
First, most events reported on Russian “lookalike” sites are true. At least in the media monitored by the Influence database, Russia’s intent does not seem to be to deceive audiences with outright falsehoods. Remember – disinformation does not necessarily imply the use of forgeries and fabrications alone. The truth can be just as useful. Rather, Russia’s goal appears to be to flood the U.S. media environment with enough content about Americans treating other Americans poorly that U.S. consumers of Russian “lookalike” media begin to believe that our everyday experience as Americans is that of a hopeless, broken society full of race-fueled assaults and police officers attacking and killing citizens they are meant to protect. Russia’s goal is to have us believe that this is happening in America every single minute of every single day, in every single city and town, perpetrated by our own friends and neighbors. Russia hopes to invoke these feelings in American readers as a part of the tactic of, as author Thomas Rid says in Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare, “exacerbating existing tensions and contradictions within the adversary’s body politic by leveraging facts, fakes, and ideally a disorienting mix of both” to achieve a desired end.
Second, Russia has used this same method of exploiting American race and civil rights issues for its own gain before. Rid reminds us that during the Cold War, Soviet intelligence agencies weaponized totally factual information against U.S. audiences, including one such operation in 1960 where the KGB created fake African American activist groups to amplify reports of lynchings and other racial violence in the American South. This is presumably the same tactic and the same broader strategy that Russia is employing in our current political environment, as the Influence data above suggests. The same 60-year-old KGB playbook is being used here, only the method of narrative delivery to the target audience has changed in our digital age.
You Are Russia’s Target Audience
Put simply, this is sophisticated psychological warfare waged by an experienced and technologically capable adversary. In its discussions of U.S. racial justice issues and police brutality, Russian “lookalike” media often take the moral high ground and incorporate sentiments that American audiences widely agree with, using reporting that is, by and large, true and factual. But whether or not Russian reporting is based in fact is not the point. The point is that these Russian networks have a particular strategy in mind, which is to inject into the American information environment a specific recipe of data that Russia believes will manipulate Americans into acting in Russia’s – not America’s – best interests. Russia has discovered that it can contribute to U.S. social degradation by controlling the narratives we, members of the American electorate in the midst of an election cycle, consume and use to decide the future of our nation. To control the narrative is to control the information environment, and control of the information environment is everything.