Russian trolls are already active across social media in an attempt to disrupt the 2020 presidential elections, cybersecurity experts are warning.
During the 2016 election, the Russian government sponsored a campaign to push propaganda and politically divisive messages with a goal of electing Donald Trump, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded. A new report from Bloomberg showed that these trolls — operating out of the Kremlin-sponsored Internet Research Agency — are back at it for the 2020 election, this time shifting the strategy away from posting outright disinformation and Kremlin-made propaganda and instead focusing on pushing existing messages that sow political division.
“Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content,” said John Hultquist, the director of intelligence analysis at FireEye Inc. “Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, and that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.”
Other cybersecurity experts say that Russian trolls are ramping up their efforts, even breaking into computer devices and using them to build an army of fake social media users that appear to be legitimate, American users.
As the Washington Post noted, some of the Russian trolls have become so sophisticated that even major American newspapers have been fooled into thinking they are legitimate. The report pointed out a September 10, 2018, tweet from an account called @PoliteMelanie that wrote: “Criticizing Trump in a book is just unfair. It’s like criticizing the Amish on television.”
The Chicago Tribune called it their “Tweet of the Week,” not realizing that @PoliteMelanie was actually part of a network of Russian troll accounts pushing the divisive political messages. As the Washington Post noted, the award shows how much effort that Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin put into his Internet Research Agency.
“Most Americans probably believe that they could spot a Russian troll from a mile away — and that they would certainly never engage with one,” the report noted. “These assumptions, however, do not give credit to what Prigozhin’s people have built.”
????Social Media Russian Trolls: New Tactics for 2020 Elections.????— Bryan Harnsberger Psy.D (@PSYCH_HYPE) March 9, 2019
“Instead of creating content themselves, we see them amplifying content...Then it’s not necessarily inauthentic, & that creates an opportunity for them to hide behind somebody else.” https://t.co/thEjPXt2ZC
Russian trolls during the 2016 election often pushed both sides of an issue, posting messages both in support and opposition to divisive social movements like Black Lives Matter or advocating for supporters of Bernie Sanders to sit out the 2016 election rather than voting for Hillary Clinton.
Cybersecurity experts say more responsibility must fall on social media companies to identify and combat the Russian trolls, which was seen as a major failing in 2016 as Facebook and other companies did little or nothing to stop disinformation on their platforms.