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Research Questions

  1. How has Russia viewed and used social media to wage information warfare?
  2. How have U.S. allies addressed this threat?
  3. How can this threat be more effectively mitigated?

Russia is waging wide-reaching information warfare with the West. A significant part of this war takes place on social media, which Russia employs to spread disinformation and to interfere with the internal politics of other countries. Drawing on a variety of primary and secondary sources, expert interviews, and fieldwork in Ukraine, the report describes Russia's information warfare in the social media sphere (as of 2019) and provides recommendations to better counter this evolving threat. Moscow views social media as a double-edged sword — anxious about its potential to undermine Russia's security but aware of its advantages as a weapon of asymmetric warfare. Russia's use of this weapon picked up most markedly in 2014, suggesting a reaction to the West's response to the Ukraine conflict. Although popular portrayals of the Russian disinformation machine at times imply an organized and well-resourced operation, evidence suggests that it is neither. However, even with relatively modest investments, Russian social media activity has been wide-reaching. The impacts of Russia's efforts on the West — and of Western countermeasures on Russia — are difficult to assess. However, this threat can cause a variety of harms and is likely to evolve. Thus, the authors recommend that the U.S. Air Force and the joint force improve defensive measures aimed at raising awareness and lowering the susceptibility of the military and their families to Russian disinformation and propaganda campaigns. This research was completed in September 2019, before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has not been subsequently revised.

Key Findings

  • Russia views social media as a double-edged sword, at once harboring anxieties about social media's potential to undermine Russia's security and recognizing its advantages as a low-cost and potentially highly effective weapon of asymmetric warfare.
  • Russia's use of social media outside the former Soviet Union picked up most markedly in 2014, suggesting that this behavior is, in part, a reaction to the West's response to the Ukraine conflict.
  • The Russian disinformation machine has been neither well organized nor especially well resourced (contrary to some implications in popular media), and the impact of Russian efforts on the West has been uncertain.
  • However, even with relatively modest investments, Russian social media activity has been wide reaching, spreading disinformation and propaganda to sizable audiences across multiple platforms.
  • Russia appears to view its own activity as successful, so the threat posed by this activity is likely to persist — and, potentially, to grow.
  • Western countermeasures have raised awareness of Russian activities, but their impact on Russia's efforts has been uncertain, and Russia appears undeterred.
  • Moreover, Russia's social media–based information warfare is evolving. Russia is likely to continue pursuing some of the same goals and targets but is developing more-sophisticated tactics and techniques aimed at circumventing Western countermeasures.

Recommendations

  • The Air Force should be mindful of Russia's perceptions when deploying assets related to military information support operations or psychological operations in areas that Russia perceives to be of strategic importance or interest.
  • The joint force should adopt appropriate monitoring processes to improve detection of Russian information efforts of greatest concern to the U.S. Department of Defense (e.g., those targeting members of U.S. military and associates, and U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization operations).
  • The joint force should take measures to reduce overattributing disinformation on social media to Russia.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should train troops and their family members to expect and recognize disinformation and other information manipulation by Russian actors.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should develop policy regarding social media platforms and devices and should train and educate troops about vulnerabilities related to sharing personal data online.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should train and educate top officials about salient risks stemming from hacking and leaking information.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should foster institutional capacity for disseminating counternarratives and debunking disinformation on matters pertaining to the Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should maintain clear, consistent public messaging pertaining to ongoing U.S. and allied activity and matters of public controversy implicating the U.S. and allied militaries.
  • The Air Force and the joint force should work through nongovernmental organizations to debunk disinformation.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Air Force Special Operations Command and conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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