Russia-Based Influence Campaign Spanned Six Years

(Bloomberg) -- A Russia-based group has for the last six years peddled forged documents and used fake social-media accounts in an effort to influence elections and divide critics in the West, while mostly avoiding efforts to detect such activity, according to an exhaustive report on the operation released Tuesday.

Graphika, the social-media analytics company that produced the 150-page report, said the group created documents, tweets and blogs attributed to such well-known political leaders as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, then seeded them into a variety of social-media forums in order to stoke division.

“Secondary Infektion is unique for the sheer range of platforms on which it posted: no other operation from any country that Graphika has studied even comes close,” the report’s authors wrote. “The operation’s lack of viral engagement also sets it apart.”

The report compared the group and some of its methods to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that churned out countless fake social-media posts during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

However, unlike the IRA, this operation, known to researchers by the moniker Secondary Infektion, was far less effective. It abandoned most of its accounts after they were used once -– making it hard to develop a following –- and it “consistently used sophisticated techniques to cover its tracks but struggled to achieve any measurable engagement,” according to the report.

“One of the lessons for me is that mounting a successful information operation is lot harder than people seem to think,” said Ben Nimmo, Graphika’s director of investigations, who led a team that scoured the internet for the group’s efforts following Facebook Inc. reports about suspicious activity.

In May 2019, the social-media giant discovered a small batch of Secondary Infektion accounts and attributed them to Russia, according to Graphika. Following those digital clues, investigators eventually found an operation that spanned “from social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Reddit to niche discussion forums in Pakistan and Australia.”

Yet, as the report emphasizes, much about the Russian operation remains a mystery: It has posted thousands of pieces of content across the internet over the better part of a decade, in seven languages and on more than 300 web platforms, the report’s authors found. But neither Graphika nor collaborators at seven social-media platforms were able to determine who financed the activity or what links it might have to Russia’s government.

“I think we’re now realizing that in reality, there is no ‘Russian playbook,’” said Camille Francois, Graphika’s chief innovation officer. “We continue to uncover blind spots in our understanding of these operations.”

Like its Russian cousins, including specialized units of Russia’s military intelligence division, known as the GRU, Secondary Infektion sought to influence elections in the West, including the 2016 U.S. presidential contest and the French presidential election a year later, the report found.

But many of its activities appeared to be aimed at stoking divisions among Russia’s rivals, including Poland, Germany, the U.K., Ukraine and the U.S. In one operation documented in the report, the group created a fictitious entity called the Black Defense Foundation and authored an accompanying blog calling for a full political split between White and Black Americans based on factors like police violence.

Another effort attempted to discredit the World Anti-Doping Agency amid Russia’s sporting scandals, and others promoted promoted Islamophobic content as well as falsehoods about divisions in Europe and aggression by the U.S., NATO and Turkey.

The group’s most frequent target was Ukraine, as it sought to portray the country as “a failed or unreliable state,” the report said.

While these fake scandals were not influential online, Secondary Infektion was able to gain mainstream traction when it amplified an apparently genuine leak of U.S.-U.K. trade documents ahead of the 2019 U.K. election. This presents a possible lesson for the U.S. election: Given that a genuine leak was the only instance in which Secondary Infektion had significant impact, the U.S. should make sure that all parties – ranging from campaigns and law enforcement to news outlets and social media platforms – are prepared to handle leaks ahead of November, according to Graphika’s Nimmo.

“When you think about the impact that leaks can have on any kind of election situation, they are far more complex to deal with than just a fake story,” Nimmo said of Secondary Infektion. “There’s a whole of society conversation that needs to go on about how do you react.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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