US Intelligence Warns of Russia's Increased Disinformation Tactics
U.S. intelligence experts say that Russia has dramatically increased its “active measures” against the United States through distributing disinformation and propaganda, and bribing and blackmailing leaders.
Russian agents have particularly targeted United States service members and veterans in their attempt to disrupt the American political process and heighten support for Russia.
Russian Social Media Targeting and Hacking to Influence Americans
The Veterans Today news site, popular among the military community, formed a partnership with the Russian government-sponsored journal New Eastern Outlook in 2013. Since then, the site has primarily published pro-Russia content, including headlines such as “Ukraine’s Ku Klux Klan - NATO’s New Ally.”
With over 2,500 Facebook followers and over 500,000 unique site visitors per month, Veterans Today has been successful in spreading pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation.
Former Army intelligence officer and independent researcher Joel Harding have described Veterans Today and partner sites South Front and Veterans News Now as “Russian proxy sites.” He said that they could successfully influence the military community over time, because “if someone regards them as a reliable source of truthful information, does not recognize that they are pushing Russian propaganda or information with a pro-Russian perspective, over time they will change [to become pro-Russian.]”
Gordon Duff, senior editor of Veterans Today, said in a 2012 interview that “about 30% of what’s written on Veterans Today, is patently false. About 40% of what I write, is at least purposely, partially false because if I didn’t write false information I wouldn’t be alive.”
Veterans Today is part of the larger “Veterans Today Network, which hosts a jobs board, a cancer foundation, and a sister site. A form on VeteransTodayCancerFoundation.org asks veterans to provide personal information, including their social media handles.
Pro-Russian Propaganda Aimed at Military Community Among Misinformation Tactics
Russian actors have notably targeted American military members, using tactics such as friending service members and their families under fake accounts to gather intelligence.
One strategy employed by Russian propagandists involves posing as attractive young women to befriend American soldiers on Facebook, granting them the ability to post propaganda on their feeds. Veterans Today and similar sites serve as convenient sources of propaganda that are disguised as veterans’ news.
Aside from propaganda campaigns, Russian agents have carried out sophisticated "phishing" attacks on Defense Department employees' accounts. In addition, hacking groups linked to the Russian military, such as "Fancy Bear," have breached the Democratic National Committee and posted stolen Army data online.
Cybersecurity firm SecureWorks reported that 41 percent of the people targeted by Fancy Bear outside the former Soviet Union were current or former military personnel, while 22 percent were authors and journalists. Of those targeted in this way, one-fifth were spouses of military members.
Russian Targeting Increases During War
Russia notably heightened its online campaign during the 2014 annexation of Crimea and during their ongoing war with Ukraine in 2022.
During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, Russian forces aimed to demoralize Ukrainian soldiers with messages like "Soldier, you are just raw meat for your commanders."
Russia has continued to spread disinformation during the ongoing war to bolster their public image and turn others against the Ukrainian people, thus continuing to weaken their morale.
Hundreds of false online campaigns have been traced back to Russian media outlets, including assertions of staged massacres, forged documents from Ukrainian military leaders, the supposed presence of NATO forces in the country, and alleged attacks by Ukrainians on their own civilians.
Recent pro-Russia headlines on Veterans Today during the war with Ukraine include: “Kiev’s Forces Shelled a Detention Center in Donbass because “the Nazi began to Testify on War Crimes,” “Zelensky’s Conscription Now Targeting Nursing Homes,” and “The Risks of US Military Assistance to Ukraine. Disturbing Alert by NATO’s Media Partner Defense One.”
Russia's online campaigns to disrupt American news cycles and social media have escalated over time. As the pressure from Russia continues to mount, it is crucial to be cautious online and check for indications of Russian propaganda both when reading and sharing news.