What are Russia’s goals with disinformation on social media?

Professor Steven Wilson explains.

Illustration. Vladimir Putin in foreground, people and American flags in background.Illustration/Jessica Tanny

In the run-up to the presidential election, BrandeisNOW asked faculty to provide analysis and insight into some of the most pressing issues facing the country. This is part of the series.

Over the last decade, the growth of social media has gone hand in hand with the increasing use of those platforms for the coordinated dissemination of disinformation. 

Russian pseudo-state operations such as the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg and financed by allies of Putin, are of particular concern. They have been linked to dozens of international campaigns using “troll farms” of employees posting with fake accounts in addition to networks of automated bots to push disinformation on social media.

These campaigns have been global in reach, including efforts in both South America and Africa. The countries of the former Soviet Bloc have been intensely targeted, especially Ukraine in the wake of the Russian-supported insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

The United States has been the target of what can appear to be a bizarre cacophony of campaigns. 

In addition to extensive campaigns supporting Donald Trump leading up to the 2016 presidential elections, campaigns at various points focused on: a hoax about poisoned Thanksgiving turkeys, an invented chemical plant explosion, anti-vaccination propaganda, electoral college reform, anti-Muslim immigration, Black Lives Matter, and even the organization of anti-Trump protests once he was in office.

For the most part, these campaigns have co-opted existing organizations and content and repurposed and amplified their message. 

The campaigns exploit existing political fault lines like race and regionalism to increase polarization and disaffection with the political system. The complete lack of a coherent message across these campaigns is jarring until one realizes that the goal of the campaigns is not necessarily to convince anyone of anything, but rather to generate noise.

We can see this in action when we look at the internal propaganda of the Putin regime on specific topics like the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine in 2014 in which a plethora of completely contradictory – and largely obviously fictional – explanations  were pushed simultaneously. 

The proliferation of noise encourages the public to disbelieve everything and undermines the basic assumption that there is an objective truth that we can more or less trust media outlets to tell us. 

Democracy does not function without trust – in institutions, in the press, in fellow citizens. Russian disinformation campaigns have found social media a fertile field for destroying that trust.

Steven Wilson is an assistant professor of politics whose research focuses on Russia, cybersecurity, and the role of social media in shaping collective action, authoritarian resilience and de-democratization. 

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, International Affairs, Research

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