One of the likely effects of the continued Donald Trump led, Fox News-rallied Republican insistence on ignoring the aggressive Russian influence campaign during the 2016 elections is that the Putin government is now emboldened to escalate those attacks even further. As security researchers scramble to determine just how much mischief an all-out attack might have on state voter rolls, elections offices or, yes, the two major parties themselves, the more pervasive attempts to influence public opinion via state-sponsored bots and sockpuppets continue to evolve.
“They haven’t stood still since 2016,” said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow in information defense at the Digital Forensic Research Lab at the Atlantic Council in Washington, which tracked the activity. “People have woken up to the idea that bots equal influence and lots of people will be wanting to be influencing the midterms.”
While special counsel and former FBI chief Robert Mueller keeps investigating the 2016 race, Nimmo’s work is among a number of initiatives cropping up at think tanks, startups, and even the Pentagon seeking to grasp how bots and influence operations are rapidly evolving. Blamed for steering political debate last year, bots used for Russian propaganda and other causes are only becoming more emboldened, researchers say.
The notion of paying several dozen or several hundred people to go online and peddle lists of talking points distributed from a government agency—translation: propaganda—isn't new. As social networks gain influence and popularity, however, the effectiveness of the technique is growing just as quickly. For any nation that seeks to bend world opinion in its favor, online propaganda efforts from the confines of a nondescript but well-connected office space may in fact be the cheapest and most effective means of bending public opinion in one direction or another.
So it will continue, and not just from a single nation; the success of the Russian effort is no doubt being closely watched by numerous other nations seeking to tip the scales in their favor without flexing much military or economic might. How to combat it is going to be one of the major questions for governments, social networking companies, a free press, and citizens alike.