More details are emerging of Russian efforts to disseminate propaganda and influence U.S. public opinion via advertising and content distributed over social media, much of it targeted to specific groups. A new study suggests that one of those target audiences included current and former U.S. military personnel.
The study by Oxford University researchers, first reported in an op-ed published in Military.com, identified a number of Web sites associated with the Russian government that used social media last year to disseminate a range of ideologically charged content to service members and veterans. That included “conspiracy theories and other misinformation.
The researchers focused on Twitter and Facebook activity last spring, during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election. It found three Web sites with Russian connections were particularly active on Twitter during this period, with “significant and persistent” interactions with other users on the social platform.
The Web sites identified by the researchers include Veteranstoday.com, which frequently cites content from New Eastern Outlook, a journal published by the Russian Academy of Sciences, a state-funded institution.
Similarly another site, Veteransnewsnow.com, has made a habit of citing content from the Strategic Culture Foundation, a think tank in Moscow with government ties. A third site, Southfront.org, was originally registered in Moscow and frequently cites Veterans Today, the first Web site.
Oxford internet studies professor Philip Howard tells Military.com: “We've found an entire ecosystem of junk news about national security issues that is deliberately crafted for U.S. veterans and active military personnel. It's a complex blend of content with a Russian view of the world -- wild rumors and conspiracies."
Facebook recently admitted that fake sites associated with Russia bought over 3,000 political ads during the 2016 presidential election, typically dealing with hot-button topics such as immigration and other social issues.
In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, Howard called on the social media giants to disclose more information to help assess the actual impact, if any, of the ads. “But sharing examples is only the first small step in what should be a systematic analysis of foreign political influence on American voters through online networks. … The next step in understanding Russian interference involves sharing network data – not just ad examples.”