Digital Warfare: Russia’s Attacks on Democracy

A capstone class in journalism taught by Jean Marie Brown, assistant professor of Professional Practice and director of Student Media, has met with top experts on cybersecurity and the Russians use of social media as a propaganda tool. The students participating in this class are Grace Amiss, Katie Carter, Griffin Conboy, Richard Edgemon, Corinne Hildebrandt, Alexa Hines, Brittany Kasko, Carolina Olivares, Mariana Rivas and Michael Rogers. As a part of the multiplatform capstone course in journalism, these students participated in Reporting on International Affairs, a CSIS Practicum in Journalism. The story below originally appeared on Sept. 28, 2018.

Recent attacks by Russia have left the United States battling on a new front.

From the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee to recent attempts by the Russian spy agency GRU to infiltrate American think tank systems, these attacks aren’t fueled by the brute force and nuclear arms that defined the Cold War. Under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has reignited its ideological battle with the West by waging a more insidious offensive: intrude on Western democratic processes and meddle in nations’ politics.

“We’re at war,” says Heather Conley, author of “The Kremlin Playbook,” and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We just don’t know it.”

Conley says today’s weapons of choice are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the battleground is public opinion. But whether the public and government leaders fully understand—and are ready to combat this threat—is a different story.

The recent flurry of cyber conflict dates back more than 10 years to 2007, when cyberattacks traced to Russian IP addresses crippled Estonia. More recently, Russia attempted to influence the outcome of France’s 2017 presidential election. Their strategy was simple: use social media to sway public opinion toward candidates and issues that favor the Kremlin’s agenda.

The tactics—establishing fake accounts and using software to trigger the release of misinformation—have ushered in a new era of propaganda. This new generation warfare targets existing societal tensions while exploiting the benefits of freedoms like free speech.

But these tactics are not new. They are centuries-old tactics—old news in a new guise—with roots in the Soviet era.