During the 2016 presidential campaign, Russian cyber-operatives conducted a sustained “influence campaign” cyberattack on the American electoral system by relying on social media to radicalize voters, undermine institutions, and disseminate misleading information. The efforts are ongoing in the weeks leading up to the 2018 midterms — and other countries are doing it, too. Influence campaigns — coordinated efforts to create and propagate misleading and inflammatory content on social media — borrow heavily from modern internet-based marketing techniques. “[Tech] platforms are especially good at helping marketers hit a target audience with a refined message,” says Adweek technology editor Josh Sternberg. “Influence campaigns are no different. They’re effective because social media marketing is effective.”
Russian hackers — adapting those marketing techniques — used coded language and images intended to spark feeling and emotion and to animate the audience, Sternberg says. “[The influence campaign] might start with fake accounts and fake news, but it also recruits real users to relay the message. Marketing primes the audience to be more sympathetic and creates brand ambassadors who amplify the signal. This is why Facebook, Twitter, and Google are worth billions.”
Operatives at Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), a “troll factory” linked to the 2016 effort, are masters of social media marketing. According to the August 2018 indictment of Russian nationals, the members posed as Americans and established thousands of social media personas and pages “designed to attract U.S. audiences.” The operators disseminated posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and other sites denigrating candidate Hillary Clinton while boosting her rivals, including Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The group also posted “derogatory information” using inflammatory language intended to suppress African-American and Muslim turnout, deepen social fissures, and soften Russia’s image.