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Election Strife, Protest And Noise: In 2017, Russia Cranked Up The Volume

A congressional staff member displays images of social media posts during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November about Russian use of social media.
Alex Wong
Getty Images
A congressional staff member displays images of social media posts during a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November about Russian use of social media.

International influence campaigns have been around for centuries, but 2017 made clear how much they remain a part of daily life.

Through court documents, congressional testimony, press reports and other sources, Americans learned not only about the extent of the "active measures" — as they're known to intelligence officers — that Russia waged against the U.S. through the presidential election.

They also learned to expect high-tech agitation as part of their normal diet of information online: about the Alabama special election. About the NFL players' protests. About the the violent protests in Charlottesville, Va.

With each of those stories and more, Russian social media accounts were in the mix, turning up the volume by repeating posts, spreading hashtags and seeking as much strife as possible.

"They were taking both sides of the argument this past weekend and pushing them out from their troll farms as much as they could to just raise the noise level in America and make a big issue seem like an even bigger issue as they're trying to push divisiveness in the country," as Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said in the fall.

He was describing the national debate over NFL players' decision to take a knee during "The Star-Spangled Banner," but the practice he described has been repeated in other cases before and since.

Tools such as the dashboard track Russian-linked accounts in real time to show what links, phrases and hashtags are circulating. On a typical day, it's a mix of the normal traffic — perennials such as #ThursdayThoughts — and whatever is hot at the moment.

Often, the themes or stories are American — whatever is trending. Although "fake news" remains an issue, as well as the use of fake groups or fake accounts, influence-mongers use much of their bandwidth to increase the circulation of issues that are already in the mainstream.

And "active measures" don't just target the United States. They also were waged against European targets, including France's election in May and Germany's election in September. Britons confirmed later in the year that Russian active measures had targeted their referendum in 2016 over leaving the European Union.

"We know what you are doing and you will not succeed," Prime Minister Theresa May said in remarks addressed to Moscow. "You underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us."

The Trump administration detailed the threat — without any specific mention of the 2016 interference — in the new National Security Strategy it released at the end of December.

"Today, cyberspace offers state and non-state actors the ability to wage campaigns against American political, economic and security interests without ever physically crossing our borders," it said.

President Trump himself was generally quieter on the subject.

Trump goes back and forth in his public remarks as to whether he accepts that Russia attacked the 2016 election; sometimes he acknowledges it, other times he calls the story a "hoax." After an in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Asia, Trump told reporters he believed Putin was sincere in his denials about the interference measures.

That was after Trump put himself on record — in writing, anyway — condemning foreign interference in U.S. elections.

Boxed in by a veto-proof congressional majority, Trump signed a bill in August that strengthened U.S. sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference.

"I also support making clear that America will not tolerate interference in our democratic process and that we will side with our allies and friends against Russian subversion and destabilization," he wrote in a statement that accompanied the final law.

All the same, a Washington Post report quoted intelligence officials who say they don't bring up the Russian attack on the election with Trump because it makes him upset.

Trump denies his camp worked with any of the Russians running their broad campaign against the U.S., which included clandestine outreach by human agents and overt messaging by fake accounts that millions of Americans saw on Facebook or Twitter.

The Justice Department's special counsel, Robert Mueller, and congressional investigators are all looking into that question.

Until Congress or Mueller is finished — or both — more action doesn't appear in the works to counter the Russian active measures. For one reason, as the Postreport described, the administration is divided within itself. There is no consensus between the White House, Pentagon, State Department or intelligence community about what countermeasures to attempt.

Another reason is that even if Washington did reach some consensus, there has never been an appealing menu of options for American policymakers. Active measures campaigns between East and West go back deep to the Cold War, including mischief by the then-Soviet KGB aimed at interfering with the presidential election of 1988.

One of the big unanswered questions about Russia's active measures campaign is about how much forged or uncertain material is circulating in public or confidentially within the U.S. government.

In at least one high-profile case, then-FBI Director James Comey obtained a purported Russian intelligence document describing an outreach by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016, promising to go easy on Clinton over her private email server.

Comey knew the material was unreliable and decided on his own to take matters into his own hands, and away from Lynch, in ultimately deciding not to prosecute Clinton over the emails. Comey declined to publicly answer questions from members of Congress about the document.

His decisions and the environment inside the FBI have come under intense scrutiny by Republican allies of Trump, who've cited evidence uncovered by the Justice Department's inspector general that they say shows some of the officials involved with the case were biased against Trump.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says the Justice Department's IG will release its report about the Clinton case sometime in early 2018.

That document might include more public detail about the Lynch-Clinton document or perhaps other fraudulent documents that were part of another aspect of the active measures campaign — one aimed not at the general public, but a tiny, elite audience of top U.S. intelligence and national security officials.

The Justice Department IG report and congressional reports about Russian active measures could appear next year at about the same time the congressional midterm elections are getting underway. Current and former intelligence bosses have warned that they'll be another major target for Russian active measures, suggesting this era's renaissance of dirty tricks will continue.

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.