Former FBI agent explores disinformation & social media

Former FBI Special Agent, Asha Rangappa, discussed disinformation, social media and the fate of democracy in a special talk at Regent’s University London on Monday night.

A senior lecturer and Director of Admissions at the Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, former Associate Dean at Yale Law School and former Special Agent in the New York Division of the FBI, Rangappa spoke of how social media, when used as an active measure, might be the greatest threat there is to national security.

Active measures, Rangappa says, is not a new phenomenon. It was a tactic employed by the KGB during the Cold War, and is a term for actions of political warfare to influence the course of world events.

“Broadly speaking, it’s any operation that a foreign intelligence service uses to try to shape the opinions and attitudes of the home population towards that host country. This can take place through propaganda, through political influence (people posing as lobbyists to get policies changes), or spying on/dissidence/harassing that country.

“It includes going into your enemy’s territory and using their own weaknesses – exploiting the weaknesses within that society – to create chaos and destabilisation within, and one of the methods employed is disinformation.

“What we’re seeing now – in the last ten years – is how these techniques have adapted to the social media landscape, and that impact is profound.

“As a former FBI agent who investigated foreign intelligence services conducting perception management operations, I think that the intersection of those kinds of operations with social media has profound implications for democracy, and might be the greatest national security threat that we have, if we don’t get our minds around it and understand how to counter it.”

When looking back at the 2016 election in the United States, Rangappa says there were four main lines of actives measures employed by the Russians.

• Hacking and intrusion
• Illegal campaign contributions
• Political influence
• Disinformation and propaganda

Inviting the audience to “think of this as them throwing spaghetti at the wall, and just seeing what would stick”, Rangappa expanded: “Hacking and intrusion is basically the stealing and weaponising of information. Getting into emails, stealing that information, weaponising it against the enemy (or the candidate in this case, which they wanted to discredit).

“Illegal campaign contributions is using either straw donors or straw organisations to funnel foreign money in.

“Political influence is where the country is using people operating in the overt sphere trying to influence policy and get people on board to have favourable views of Russia. These will also take the form of lobbying organisations, artists, basically anyone who can operate in the sphere.

“The last is disinformation and propaganda. Again this is utilising the information space, which at least in the US, is quite open, with very few constraints on it, to their advantage to disseminate propaganda.

“This is the one I think is hardest to get our minds around, and hardest to fix. If you look at all of these other threads – hacking and intrusion – you can sure up computer defences or fix voting machines, there are fixes and patches. Same thing with campaign contributions – you can tighten laws and follow strings of money. Even political influence, which is a little bit harder to suss out, isn’t quite as invisible as information that is being put out into the sphere to distort how you’re actually perceiving the world around you.”

Elaborating on this point, Rangappa referenced a KGB perception management operation from the 80s, which was the false allegation that the US government came up with the AIDS virus, comparing and contrasting it with the addition of today’s social media.

“They planted the story in an Indian newspaper - that got picked up by other newspapers, some European media picked it up, so it made its way to Europe, finally it actually made its way to the US when the theory was mentioned on television. And this is what they want – to mainstream some kind of conspiracy in order to discredit and delegitimise the government, and they were successful. But that was a two year operation, and you can imagine much forethought and planning that that took.

“You now have platforms that allow self-publishing. Basically anyone get on the internet, you can publish any story you want, and it’s out there. Unlike in the olden days when you might have a journalist, you don’t need that intermediary anymore.

“Now, with platforms like Twitter and Facebook, everybody can put on what they want. There’s no regulation of this.

“You have all of these things that have made it very easy for Russia to advance its own traditional operations in a way that is cheap and fast – way cheaper than it ever was before, and astronomically faster. What would have taken two years before takes two hours now, to reach probably ten times as many people, instantaneously.”

Rangappa discussed political polarisation and the sponsored Facebook and Instagram content appearing in newsfeeds Russia used as political interference during the 2016 election. According to the Guardian, “Russia-backed content reached as many as 126 million Americans on Facebook during and after the 2016 presidential election”.

Facebook believes 120 fake Russian-backed pages created 80,000 posts that were received by 29 million Americans directly, but reached a much bigger audience by users sharing, liking and following the posts.