So now we know. Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster claimed that Russia’s meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections was “beyond dispute” and “incontrovertible”. Although such claims were described as “just blabber” by the Russian foreign minister, a substantial amount of evidence is now in the public domain to support McMaster’s claims. This has led a grand jury in Washington to issue a 37-page indictment accusing no less than 13 Russians of a plot, starting in 2014, to influence the 2016 presidential elections in favour of Trump. Welcome to the world of Sharp Power.
The term Soft Power is now well established in the world of geopolitics. Introduced by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, soft power seeks to persuade people to your point of view, rather than using the hard power of coercion. To illustrate this difference, Nye uses the example of someone wanting your wallet. If someone puts a gun to your head and demands your wallet, it doesn’t matter what you think! That is hard power. If that person is trying to persuade you to give up your wallet voluntarily, everything depends on what you want or think. This is soft power. Between these extremes lies sharp power, the deceptive use of information for hostile purposes. Sharp power has been around for a long time, of course, and was used extensively in the Cold War by both the Soviet Union and the US, although the term itself was not used. As an example, those with long memories will recall the example of the KGB planting an anonymous letter in a small New Delhi newspaper in the 1980s claiming that AIDS was the result of an experiment by the US government with biological weapons, thus focusing the blame for the epidemic on the US. This story was repeated globally so that people really believed it to be true. How much more effective is Facebook and Twitter for this purpose!
So how has Russia established its sharp power infrastructure? If you fly to the beautiful city of St. Petersburg and drive a few miles westwards along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland towards the historical island of Kronshtadt, you will come across the town of Olgino. It is here that a company was founded in 2013 called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), also known as Glavset. Take a look at Russian internet slang and you will also find the terms “Trolls from Olgino” or “Kremlebots”. It is claimed that more than 1,000 paid bloggers work in a single building, using fake accounts registered on social media to spread false information promoting the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policy. The aim of the “paid trolls” was to make it impossible for the normal internet user to separate truth from fiction, especially when exploiting racial and ideological fissures during the US election. Describing his time at the “troll factory”, 43-year-old teacher Marat Mindiyarov told the Washington Post that he “felt like a character in the book 1984 by George Orwell, a place where you have to write white is black and black is white”! When this output was analysed, Twitter found more than 3,800 accounts linked to the IRA and alerted about 1.4 million US users that they may have unknowingly interacted with Kremlin propaganda. Facebook also testified that about 126 million users had seen Russian-linked content.
Did this matter during the election and did Trump benefit from Russian trolling? The indictment illustrated just how sophisticated was the Russian ‘election-tampering’ campaign. Evidence in the document shows that there was a sustained effort to disparage Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump. Social media was flooded by the IRA troll farm using election-related hashtags such as #TrumpTrain, #Trump2016 and #Hillary4Prison. The IRA established a division dedicated to search-engine optimisation and registered PayPal accounts with names like “firstname.lastname@example.org” to pay for their advertisements. The indictment also claims that the campaign went further, claiming that Russian agents travelled clandestinely to the US and “posed as US persons and contacted US social and political activists, organising demonstrations and rallies in support of Trump”. In order to hide their Russian affiliation, the indictment states that the perpetrators purchased space on computer servers located in the US, which is a violation of computer fraud laws. Remarkably, the Russians even used data analytics to track and assess which of their posts were proving most successful. At the human level, the indictment cites one IRA employee who, in an email to a relative, described how she “created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed it was written by their people”. Unquestionably, Trump benefited from this activity, but there is currently no suggestion that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to achieve this favour.
Perhaps the most important question arising from this evidence is how to maintain freedom of speech online, yet defend the internet from exploitation by trolls exploiting its weakness. Experts are consumed with the problem of maintaining anonymity on the web, yet at the same time having a form of accountability. One commentator, an expert on bots and on-line propaganda, found the evidence in the indictment “stunning and sobering”. Blaming Silicon Valley for its insularity, he was astonished that “major social media companies did not share evidence of Russian spending on political or social advertisements until September 2017, some 10 months after the presidential election”. A senior Facebook manager admitted that “this was a new kind of threat that was hard to predict, something we missed”. Should the US follow President Putin, who favours tight controls over a free flowing internet, or should it heed Hillary Clinton’s warning when in 2011 as Secretary of State she said, “Governments who have erected barriers to Internet Freedom will eventually find themselves boxed in”? How ironic is it that Russian sharp power using a free internet appears to have “boxed” her out of the White House.