Russia has given up on outright fake news for meddling in midterms, experts say — but is using more subtle techniques instead

Early voters cast their ballots in Atlanta, Georgia in the 2018 midterm elections in October. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images
  • Russia is stepping away from using fake news and has adopted different tactics to bait and divide Americans and influence elections, experts say.
  • The apparent playbook for interfering in the midterm elections is harder for people and social media companies to detect, experts told Reuters.
  • New tricks include boosting existing partisan memes from both political extremes, and promoting divisive posts online which originate from Americans.
  • Experts say that this strategy relies less on pure fiction, and makes it much more difficult to detect.

Russians believed to be connected to the government are still interfering in the US midterm elections, experts say – but have moved on crude tactics like fake news to new, more subtle efforts to bait and divide Americans.

Government investigators, academics and security firms believe that Russia is spreading divisive content online – including memes that come from the far left and right – with the aim of promoting extreme ideas and dividing Americans, Reuters reported.

This strategy is hard to detect, and allows them to avoid scrutiny from the government and big social media companies, the experts said. It complicates progress made by ordinary people and tech giants like Facebook, who are far more aware of the problem than they used to be.

Read more:

All the dates, deadlines, and rules you need to know before voting in the 2018 Midterm Elections

Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, told Reuters: “The Russians are definitely not sitting this one out.”

Instead, Brookie said, they have “adapted over time” to the increased focus in the US on “influence operations.” “They are baiting Americans to drive more polarising and vitriolic content,” Brookie said

Intelligence officials are now paying greater attention to such operations because they believe Russia used tactics such as the spread of false information to support Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign 2016, though the Russian government denies it.

Social media companies have also tried to stall these tactics by looking to prevent the spread of disinformation on their platforms. Facebook, for example, has created a “war room” to try and avoid the mistakes of the 2016 election.Read more:Why it’s still in Russia’s interest to mess with US politics

But researchers told Reuters that Russia’s tactics have changed in response, and now relies less on pure fiction.

Russia denies meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, though the US intelligence committee says it did. Adam Berry/Getty Images

The new tactics involve picking up on trending topics, like Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court or the Occupy Democrats protests, to promote extreme opinions, according to security company New Knowledge.

The company compiled a list of suspected Russian accounts on Facebook and Twitter that were similar to those suspended after the 2016 campaign.

Some efforts have been noticed by news outlets. The Daily Best reported on Friday that 40,000 out of 250,000 tweets about a “Blexit– a call for African-Americans to leave the Democratic party – were from Twitter handles that had previously participated in Russian disinformation campaigns.

Read more:

‘It’s like playing whack-a-mole’: A string of recent revelations paints a stark picture of Russia’s ongoing campaign to meddle in the 2018 midterms

Russia-linked operatives also messaged Americans to try and get them to buy advertisements for them and to promote protests happening in the US, Facebook’s records show, according to Reuters.

Priscilla Moriuchi, a former NSA official who is now a threat analyst at a cybersecurity firm, said that this change came about as people became more used to checking for fake news. “We’ve done a lot research on fake news and people are getting better at figuring out what it is, so it’s become less effective as a tactic.”