Cyber Psy-op Campaign in the 2016 U.S. Election: An Analysis

In the course of the 2016 U.S. presidential election there was a tremendous and historic cyber psy-op campaign waged against the citizens of the United States by a foreign power (Edit to add: since this blog post was published, US Intelligence has confirmed that this was a Russian Intelligence operation, as I and many others assumed). This psy-op campaign was multi-faceted, utilizing the dissemination of a variety of carefully crafted narratives which were propagated by various groups as well as through automated bots in order to increase visibility of said disinformation and turn public sentiment against Hillary Clinton. It also seems to have been carefully crafted to increase disharmony and chaos within the United States, exploit internal sociocultural strife, and call into question the validity of various institutions, especially in regards to media and the government.

This psy-op has been particularly effective, in part, because the narratives incorporate beliefs which are generally held in certain circles, specifically among those who distrust U.S. media and government, individuals who believe in certain types of conspiracies, and white supremacist groups. By incorporating beliefs from these groups into the narratives and finding ways to make them overlap, as well as fueling distrust of media, this strategy effectively guaranteed that the psy-op would be effective. Certain media organizations from outside the U.S. have been disseminating propaganda to feed these narratives for years, likely to sow the seeds of discord which would inevitably sprout and grow. The psy-op campaign exploited antiestablishment views and distrust for the political system, both of which have seen a slight resurgence in recent years. This trend is likely partially the result of disinformation which has, for years, attempted to characterize the United States as a villain in order to create a sense of false equivalency between the actions of the U.S. government and the actions of nations which have a much worse track record on human rights (especially LGBTQIA rights), freedom of expression, and other important issues.

Propaganda pieces increased dramatically during the election, both from sources which had previously engaged in this activity, as well as from a variety of new sources. While some of these are openly associated with foreign powers, others characterized themselves as being independent. This is an insidious mechanism of this psy-op, one which is repeated in the dissemination of the disinformation through social media. While some of these stories were written by Americans and individuals from elsewhere who may not have had malicious intentions, much of it was intentionally crafted and propagated to negatively affect the United States. This was regularly achieved by having complicit individuals masquerade online as Americans, utilizing fake Twitter accounts and other artificial online profiles to create the impression that their distrust of and discontent towards Hillary Clinton was coming from fellow citizens rather than individuals working directly and indirectly for foreign powers. These accounts, some of which are automated, are used to drive web traffic and engagement towards this disinformation in order to increase its “trending” online and place it at the top of search results. This seems to have been very successful on Twitter and Google, but even moreso on Facebook, wherein apparently controversial algorithms seem to have favored clicks over facts. The fake accounts also respond directly to online discourse and especially to accurate information which they would like to call into question, as well as facts which they would like to draw attention away from, often while simultaneously disseminating additional disinformation at the same time.

The insidious effect of this is that the longer it goes on, the less the psy-op has to rely on these artificial accounts. Over time, as the disinformation takes hold, it is then disseminated and defended by its very victims. This phenomena can then be framed as “populist”, as organic, a shifting tide of public perspectives, rather than the result of psychological operations. There were also layers of the narratives meant to undermine any potential future claims of said psy-op, including but not limited to those which call into question the nature and source of these actions and views. Many of these pieces of disinformation seem intended to serve as a sort of plausible deniability for when the conspiracy inevitably came to light. Claims of vote rigging to favor Clinton, claims of Clinton having connections to foreign powers which call into question her allegiance, claims of Clinton being in the pocket of the financial sector. These pieces of disinformation seem crafted specifically so that any statements made against the opposing side in regards to these subjects can be countered with claims that Clinton is actually the person guilty of them.

This cyber psy-op campaign slowed down tremendously once the election finished. There seems to be far less activity now from the artificial accounts which once flooded almost every top ten hashtag on Twitter with usually off-topic tweets. The psy-op is self-sustaining now, though it will inevitably unravel at some point. The full effects are yet to be seen, however, as the groups which the psy-op manipulated may have been chosen specifically for the propensity of some within their ranks to respond with violence once they realize they’ve been tricked. This is especially concerning in the event the U.S. government reveals that the election results were manipulated. This scenario would exacerbate the distrust in the political system which most in these groups already have, potentially resulting in them believing that the election had been stolen for Clinton rather than accept they’d been manipulated by a psy-op from a foreign power. The alternative, however, would be far worse.

No operation of this scope is undertaken without the potential for substantial benefit, specifically more benefit than risk. Whatever those benefits might be, the perpetrators of this campaign believe it is worth the risk of war. That should be enough to concern us all.


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