Issue Briefs

Russian Disinformation Campaign and its Impact on the 2016 Election

Russian Disinformation Campaign and its Impact on the 2016 Election

December 9, 2016

Tai Ragan

Wikileaks revelations and the proliferation of “fake news” are but a few instances of propaganda aimed at damaging Hillary Clinton in the recent U.S. presidential campaign. That said, propaganda is not a novel political tool. For as long as we have records of history, we have told each other fake or exaggerated stories about ourselves and about others.

Propaganda in WWI

Beginning in the years leading up to WWI, orchestrated propaganda as we know it today emerged as a significant tool of manipulating public opinion with the goal of maintaining political and social consensus within a country. In WWI, countries directed their populations through propaganda efforts and waged a new type of “total war” made bearable only because of such unified and enduring local support.

New modalities

In the networked age propaganda has expanded and morphed, as has conflict in general. While economic and military competition remain significant forms of conflict, the way new conflicts are being waged has fundamentally shifted. In 1993 John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt first used the term netwar to describe this new form of conflict.

“Netwar refers to information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population “knows” or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. A netwar may focus on public or elite opinion, or both. It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with local media, infiltration of computer networks and databases, and efforts to promote a dissident or opposition movements across computer networks.”

Create confusion 

The desired outcome of netwar is not ultimate victory, but a numbing uncertainty that robs a population of its ability to act. Nothing destroys the determination to act faster than doubt, so doubt and divisiveness is exactly what is spread. Why try to blow a house up when you can set termites to eat its foundations? Hostile actions taken during the recent U.S. presidential campaign fit the pattern we would expect to see from such a netwar.

Russian interference

The hack of the Democratic National Committee e-mails has been attributed to entities associated with Russian intelligence. Damaging data obtained in the hacks, was then released via Wikileaks. E-mails released contained unflattering correspondence between DNC members that ridiculed Mr. Bernie Sanders, as well as talk of ways to sabotage his campaign. The intention of the hack was to discredit the DNC and much of the traditional Democratic Party’s political elites who were clearly bent on supporting Hillary Clinton, (as the leaks demonstrated) even though they were supposed to be neutral.

Fake news, widely disseminated

And it goes beyond the hacks. Two teams of independent researchers found that the recent surge in the spread of fake news was part of a coordinated Russian propaganda campaign. This effort involved bots and paid human online “trolls” that helped spread, and create, fake articles and right-wing news stories that bashed Clinton and boosted Trump. One of these stories about a supposed child slavery ring in a pizza place resulted in a gunman pay a visit to the restaurant to investigate for himself. This spread of disinformation was amplified by social media, The Washington Post reported:

PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed on Facebook more than 213 million times.

Discredit the German Government

More recently, WikiLeaks published thousands of emails that apparently show how Germany’s chief intelligence agency cooperated with the NSA to conduct surveillance without obtaining the consent from the German government or its people. Showing German intelligence secretly collecting data on their own citizens damages the credibility of German institutions and trust in the government as a whole.

Russia accusing Ukraine

One of the most interesting incidents has been the public denunciation of Ukrainian officials by the members of the Russian Foreign Ministry. Apparently Ukraine leaked information about Trump’s then campaign chief of staff Paul Manafort, this way damaging the Trump campaign. Denouncing Ukraine, the Russian Ministry spokeswoman stated:

Ukraine seriously complicated the work of Trump’s election campaign headquarters by planting information according to which Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, allegedly accepted money from Ukrainian oligarchs”

Just stop and consider the irony of this that for a second. Super hacker Russia is accusing Ukraine of disinformation aimed at tampering with the U.S. election process, a charge that has been leveled against Russia itself. Irony and hypocrisy aside, we see Russia and Ukraine extending their regional conflict by proxy in the sphere of the U.S. elections.

How to deal with orchestrated disinformation campaigns?

The controlled release and concealment of information has become the weapon of choice since social media and other social networks directly access foreign citizens. Traditionally concerned with defending its ideology, China has constructed the Great Firewall of China a social defense structure.

Greater control and regulation of information is one possible approach to these increasing information based conflicts that has many supporters even in the West. However, although regulation may seem like a tempting weapon to counter disinformation based conflict, it is also a dangerous one, as it would potentially undermine the very liberal and democratic values it sought to protect.

Protect freedom of expression

Transparency, or the free flow of information, is a competing belief upon which to found networks and countries. Transparency has long been held as an integral part of the core values underpinning the U.S. political system. American voters feel, rightly so, that “the facts” should be laid out before them so that an informed choice can be made. Propaganda campaigns would have a hard time gaining ground when the propagandists are unable to fully control or at least distort the narrative.

Attempts by foreign governments to sway American citizens must be met with some form of resistance. A more positive and coherent national narrative and identity would help solidify society against foreign propaganda similar to effects in WWII.

What kind of countermeasures?

In is unclear, however, if it would be appropriate for such a narrative to be produced and spread by the U.S. government, perhaps in cooperation with mainstream media. The recent erosion of trust in U.S. public institutions would undermine the success of any such centralized effort.

However, if this is not the right response, the fact is that the Russian interference in the U.S. election, wrong information disseminated in the UK prior to the Brexit vote, and now the German intelligence debacle indicate that the problem of sophisticated netwar waged on a daily basis is growing and demands action.

Balancing the social and political need for effective countermeasures to netwar while at the same allowing all voices –including the voices of minority and dissent– free access to all media and social networks will require a delicate touch.

Tai Ragan is the host of GPI Forward expert video series. He spent more than half his life living in various countries around the world from Nepal to Kenya to Fiji. He worked for USAID In Indonesia on sustainable supply chains. Tai Ragan holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. His liberal arts education coupled with his global experience allows him to bring a probing set of questions to his interviews. Tai Ragan continues to expand his universe; he currently spends his nights looking upwards while building telescopes and other optical systems for the U.S. Navy.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.