Russia strikes again, targeting thousands of U.S. defense employees through Twitter

A Time Magazine report details how Russia’s post-Cold War strategy against the U.S. thrives on social media.

U.S. Pentagon building and Sept. 11 memorial outside Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
U.S. Pentagon building and Sept. 11 memorial outside Washington, D.C. CREDIT: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Russian hackers upped their game in March, graduating from political email hacks to targeted Twitter attacks. But this isn’t about trolling — it’s evidence that Russia is seizing on technological platforms with a political end goal.

According to a Time magazine piece, intelligence officials received reports that Russian hackers were targeting 10,000 Defense Department employees using tailored messages with malware links attached. The links connected users to a Russian server and automatically downloaded a program that gave hackers remote control of the user’s device and Twitter account.

This type of social media targeting from foreign players is a problem that the U.S. has only begun to understand and fight with any sort of efficacy. The 2016 presidential election demonstrated that interference in U.S. politics through the spread of disinformation via social media was effective, while more overt attacks, such as the hack that released the Democratic National Committee’s emails, helped fuel the frenzy.

Senior intelligence officials told Time that the key to Russia’s cyberespionage success is its keen understanding of human desire and behavior:

The Russians “target you and see what you like, what you click on, and see if you’re sympathetic or not sympathetic,” says a senior intelligence official. Whether and how much they have actually been able to change Americans’ behavior is hard to say. But as they have investigated the Russian 2016 operation, intelligence and other officials have found that Moscow has developed sophisticated tactics.

In one case last year, senior intelligence officials tell TIME, a Russian soldier based in Ukraine successfully infiltrated a U.S. social media group by pretending to be a 42-year-old American housewife and weighing in on political debates with specially tailored messages. In another case, officials say, Russia created a fake Facebook account to spread stories on political issues like refugee resettlement to targeted reporters they believed were susceptible to influence.

Russia’s tampering in U.S. politics has dominated news coverage for the last year. Russian bots were linked to spreading disinformation in the U.S. and French elections, favoring candidates like President Donald Trump and France’s nationalist contender Marine Le Pen, whose policies were most Russia-friendly. Le Pen lost the election to the centrist President Emmanuel Macron despite the increasing prevalence of fake news ahead of the election.

Facebook, which shut down more than 30,000 accounts that were spreading fake news before the French election, has vowed to crack down on misuse of the platform by individuals and governments. But in its report announcing the policy shift, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said there was only so much tech companies could do to stop disinformation campaigns.

“In the end, societies will only be able to resist external information operations if all citizens have the necessary media literacy to distinguish true news from misinformation,” he said. That theory is proving true as the company’s fact-checking system that labels dubious news sources for users is driving users toward fake stories rather than repelling them.

The intelligence community has also found that simply focusing on news sources isn’t going to derail Russia’s strategy.

“It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” a senior intelligence official told Time. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.

Beyond that, Moscow agents will buy Facebook ads to target certain populations (a feature that has gotten the company in trouble before).

“They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by — they do that just as much as anybody else does,” the senior intelligence official told Time.

That ability to target users and spread misinformation has the intelligence community, and Americans at large, on edge, wondering if any race or election will ever be safe. Hillary Clinton and her supporters openly blamed fake news for her presidential loss.

While the world may never be rid of fake news, it’s clear that such campaigns are here to stay and it will be up to the Defense Department, which also fell victim to Russia’s cyber campaign, to prevent that from happening again by keeping tabs botnets and specific actors. But it’s no easy task. These networks of bots are hard to trace and harder to kill: as soon as one pops up, they can go dormant or disappear.

As former NSA deputy Chris Inglis told Time, “It requires critical thinkers and people who have a more powerful vision” to get the job done.