Russia’s Information Efforts


On October 6, the Center for the National Interest organized a panel entitled “Russia’s Information Efforts.” Speakers included George Beebe, Director of Intelligence and National Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest, a former national security aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who earlier served as the head of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Russia analysis; and Eric Haseltine, President and Managing Partner of Haseltine Partners,  and a former Associate Director for Science and Technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and Director of Research at the National Security Agency. Paul Saunders, Executive Director of the Center for the National Interest, moderated. The event was broadcast live on C-SPAN and can be found here. It was also streamed live on The National Interest’s Facebook page and can be found here. A summary of the discussion can be found below.


“The Russians view [the United States] in many senses as an adversary,” said Eric Haseltine, a former Associate Director for Science and Technology in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and former Director of Research at the National Security Agency. Along similar lines, George Beebe, Director of Intelligence and National Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest, stated that “it would be surprising if the Russians were not to do things here that they believe [the United States is] doing there,” referring to Russian charges of U.S. interference in Russian internal affairs. Both Haseltine and Beebe argued that it was not unusual that Russia is using social media platforms to try and shape public opinion in the United States.

Haseltine contended that Russia’s use of platforms like Facebook and Twitter is a “showing of the flag” in the social media cyber space. Moscow’s aim was to divide the United States on multiple levels by targeting specific groups and specific “hot button” topics. Overall, Russia wanted to create dissent inside its American adversary using the tools Russia’s government had available. Haseltine argued that, because Russia has a GDP roughly equal to that of Texas, it cannot engage in traditional warfare with the United States. He also pointed out that Russia views warfare differently. It is not a matter “conflict versus not conflict,” but Clauswitz’s notion of “achiev[ing] political objectives through violence.” In the Russian case, “hacking […] or […] buying Facebook ads” is another means to achieve Moscow’s objectives. Haseltine noted that one possible goal was to display Russian power to the United States, the Russian people and the world.

Quoting Taylor Swift’s famous line, “haters gonna hate,” Beebe suggested that Russia’s interference was possibly “business as usual” for Russia’s special services. They saw protest movements like the Arab Spring and Maidan in Ukraine, both of which relied heavily on social media, and feared that the United States would attempt to influence the Russian political system through social media and information. As a result, Russia established “troll factories” — organizations designed to set up fake social media accounts and generate comments —to flood its own cyber space with pro-government propaganda. Beebe argued that after working mainly in the Russian social media space, Russian troll factories might have simply branched out to the United States.

Beebe and Haseltine were skeptical of Putin’s suggestion that rouge “patriotic hackers” were behind Russia’s interference. Haseltine and Beebe argued that Russia’s publicly disclosed Facebook ad buy of $100,000 during the 2016 election is likely the “tip of the iceberg” and suggested that independent activists would not have such resources. The question is to what extent the state was involved. Haseltine contended that Russia’s interference was organized by the highest levels of the Russian government; this was “Putin all the way,” he said. Haseltine claimed that no matter which organ of the state or which troll factory was directly responsible, Putin has a “commanding grip” on Russian secret services and must have known about these activities.

Beebe disagreed, arguing that the structure of Russian troll factories may also explain Russian interference in U.S. cyber space. He outlined a system in which troll factory hackers operate under a very broad set of guidelines, earn money based on the number of posts and have quotas. Russia’s interference could have been the result of hackers who were trying to be innovative or to impress their supervisors, Beebe said. Thus they may have been acting under existing instructions to influence U.S. discourse and without specific orders, he said.

Regardless of who ordered the interference and to what extent Putin was directly involved, both panelists agreed that foreign interference in social media is a new threat the United States must face. Social media is a relatively new platform and, by design, is a free space. Haseltine and Beebe agreed that the government should take care not to interfere in the private sector social media, especially in policing content any more than it already has. They recognized that through social media anything can be made public for anyone, anywhere. Information, as Haseltine put it, is a new form of currency that can be manipulated and exchanged. There is no longer the “safety net” of a reliable editorial staff among the media that determines what is and is not newsworthy. This gives individual readers much greater responsibility to assess what they see online.