Traditional media was very critical of social media’s involvement in election interference during the 2016 presidential campaign. While there are plenty of worthy criticisms, the forest has been lost for the trees when it comes to
In 2015, Lyudmila Savchuk, a Russian reporter and proclaimed troll hunter, got a job at the now infamous Internet Research Agency. She worked undercover at the IRA for two and a half months, then went public with her report for a Russian paper. This is a fairly old story, that is getting Western press again because the Muller report mentions the IRA. Lyudmila seems to come out of nowhere and her motivations accepted at face value. But is it that hard to imagine a Russian reporter is herself part of a larger disinformation campaign? No one seems to be bringing it up.
The troll hunter report is a somewhat bland behind-the-scenes look at the IRA, revealing the expected: groups of people creating fake profiles, comments and content based on goals communicated from the top down. From reading the original sources, it seems that the Russian state is attempting to discredit the IRA, and spread a message of international cooperation against disinformation. It’s hard to not see this as a thinly veiled smokescreen, hiding the true state level work being done to spread misinformation online that we know hasn’t stopped. If the IRA is a fall guy, a Russian spy reporting on it would be part of the same disinformation campaign. Bringing Russia’s digital influence techniques into the offline world surely isn’t a stretch. That’s been going on since the Cold War.
Lyudmila spoke at the 2018 Atlantic Council Stratcom conference in Washington DC. She retells her story in the context of sharing it with her therapist following a nervous breakdown. She tries to paint herself as the unwitting hero and it’s curious that western sources have accepted her story without question. During her Stratcom talk, Lyudmila says that trolls are first told to “Pretend to be as humane and human as possible”. Isn’t she doing exactly that? She then literally talks about microwaving an egg and getting it all over her face.
The media reporting this story is not much different than a Facebook user liking and sharing a Russian troll Facebook post. It seems to be commonly accepted that we are in an information war with countries like Russia. In this video about the 6 domains of warfare, a US General clearly explains how the human domain of war is the most critical to winning a war before a bullet is fired. The troll farm report seems to be right out of this playbook.
With the focus on social media’s impact on the election, it seems that the broader domains of information warfare have been ignored. I have no idea if Lyudmila Savchuk is a digital double agent, but she serves as a teaching opportunity. Her unchecked propagation through Western media is an example, and an important warning, about this previously invisible domain of war. How can it be said that Russian media is state-sponsored propaganda, and then circulate one of its reporters’ findings as unquestionable truth? The traditional media is calling for social media to validate the authenticity of a news story, but who is watching the watchmen? I’m concerned more people aren’t asking such a fundamental question before interviewing, quoting and inviting such people to conferences. Public diligence is the only counter to disinformation that I know of, but it only works if we work it.