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How foreign influence efforts are targeting journalists

Disinformation efforts in 2020 became even more complex.

- October 29, 2020

Editors’ note: This archival piece by Kelly M. McFarland and Alistair Somerville offers a reminder of the disinformation efforts that targeted the 2020 elections and continue to challenge U.S. democracy. The analysis was originally published in the Washington Post on Oct. 29, 2020.

A Washington Post editorial in October 2020 warned that the fear of foreign interference in the election can make Americans distrustful of democracy — and there’s no shortage of stories on this type of interference. U.S. officials blamed Iran that week for menacing emails targeting Democratic voters. The Oct. 14 New York Post story about a laptop reportedly belonging to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, is another example of how alleged information operations continue to shape election narratives in the run-up to Nov. 3.

What’s different in 2020?

After widespread analysis of disinformation tactics in the 2016 U.S. election and the 2017 French presidential election, among others, many analysts expected to see more of the same in 2020. New analysis in the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy’s latest report, “The New Weapon of Choice: Technology and Information Operations Today” notes these “hack-and-leak” operations would probably pose a significant risk in the 2020 elections.

This year, the media industry is fighting back. Facebook and Twitter announced efforts to remove “inauthentic behavior” — weeding out potential disinformation from “bots” and “troll farms.” Fear of amplifying hack-and-leak operations is one reason the news media has been cautious about reading too much into the New York Post Hunter Biden laptop story, for instance.

The rapid circulation of such material highlights a specific type of information operation that Russian and other foreign groups are pursuing in this election cycle. Disinformation campaigns target bona fide journalists, in operations designed to launder false or misleading material through reputable outlets.

Here’s how this works: Adversaries such as the Russian, Chinese and Iranian governments seek out journalists, either to co-opt or to use them as unwitting accomplices to push out disinformation. In the alleged Biden laptop case, the journalist who wrote most of the original article reportedly did not want his byline attached to it — which suggests the newsroom had some doubts about the story’s provenance.

Using domestic news media to disseminate leaked material also shows how the lines between foreign and domestic operations have blurred, making it harder for analysts and governments to attribute foreign interference. While a particular influence operation may originate abroad, laundering information through U.S. domestic influencers — such as journalists — also makes it much more difficult to mitigate these types of operations.

Russia is again the disinformation leader

Our report found Russian-linked operations continue to lead the way in foreign interference — a finding the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed earlier this month. These methods are evolving to meet the new informational playing field, as social media companies exert greater efforts to police the content on their platforms more effectively. Other groups, including government-backed information operations originating in Gulf countries, have used similar tactics, including creating fake journalist personas and placing op-eds in U.S. outlets to push state-backed narratives on high-visibility political issues.

Russia’s Peace Data operation illustrates how bona fide journalists can get caught up in malign activities. The St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, the source of election disinformation that plagued social media platforms in 2016, expanded their approach through the creation of Peace Data, a bogus left-wing “news site.” The website’s administrators paid journalists to write and promote articles on hot button topics, including global human rights issues. Some 20 journalists, including people out of work or looking for freelance jobs during the pandemic lockdowns, accepted paid writing assignments from what they believed to be an “independent” outlet.

The apparent goal of Peace Data was not to spread outright lies and falsehoods, but to exploit credible targets like journalists to deepen divisions in democratic societies, including the United States. “Articles relating to the United States,” according to analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “painted the picture of ‘war-mongering and law-breaking abroad while being wracked by racism, COVID-19, and cutthroat capitalism at home,’ with the aim of appealing to left-wing voters and steering them away from the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden” to further muddy the choice for voters.

Disinformation campaigns are here to stay

The spread of disinformation related to next week’s election has focused social media companies’ resources on the challenge of how to stem the tide. In a polarized political environment, the possibility of an extended vote tally period or any rumors of prolonged uncertainty around the election outcome means foreign information operations designed to sow confusion may intensify further.

But the tactic of targeting journalists is not unique to election season. Earlier this year, for example, the coordinator for the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center testified to Congress “that Russia is behind ‘swarms of online, false personas’ that sought to spread misinformation about coronavirus on social media sites, stressing the ‘entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play.’” The overall goal, most likely, is to fuel domestic polarization and undermine confidence in democracy, using both real and fictitious online personas.

Some media outlets have increased their efforts to counter disinformation campaigns. New Washington Post and New York Times guidelines about how to cover hacked and leaked materials during election season suggest national newspapers are taking disinformation seriously. Other initiatives like the Flipboard app’s new Truth Seekers project will turn to academics and journalists with experience rooting out disinformation — and rely on these trusted sources to help disseminate facts to the broader public.

Of course, false information campaigns aren’t likely to wrap up when the final votes are counted. ISD’s new report suggests 2020 will leave the U.S. government with brand-new disinformation campaigns to investigate, and further challenges for industry experts, policymakers and civil society to mitigate in the future.

Kelly M. McFarland is the director of programs and research at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and an adjunct professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @mcfarlandkellym.

Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He edits diplomacy case studies for the Institute’s online library. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville.