3 Ways Some Materially Benefit from Foreign-Sponsored Attacks on Our Democracies

Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

“If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.” — Captain Jean-Luc Picard

As 2022 continues its dawn and we learn more about Russia and other state actors’ long-term leveraging of malign influence campaigns against our democracies at the municipal, state, and federal levels, it’s beyond obvious that not everyone reacts the same way to the confirmation of these events.

One American who is privileged with intimate knowledge on the subject is Vermont’s Junior Senator Bernie Sanders. At the beginning of 2020, after Senator Sanders received an intelligence briefing about Russian interference targeting his campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination, he said this,

“Let me be clear: We must not live in denial while allowing Russia and other state actors to undermine our democracy or divide us. Russia targets the divisions in our society; we will work to heal those divisions.”

The level of interference Russia, other state actors, or potential local delegates achieved within the Senator’s campaign is still relatively unknown to the greater public. It is unclear if the intelligence briefings provided his organization with any political advantages. Nevertheless, the Senator’s public statements revealed several key points. First, the Senator acknowledged the truth that Russia had engaged his campaign on some level. Secondly, the Senator highlighted these actors’ objective is to “undermine our democracy or divide us” adding that “Russia targets the divisions in our society.” Then, the Senator made clear the wellbeing of our democracy is tied to the healing of divisions among our communities.

The Senator recognized the inherent threats and dangers of even the appearance of his organization associating with foreign interference actors. Others following the news may have differed, identifying these attacks as opportunities to profit and self-promote while forwarding their agenda.

Russia and other state actors engage thousands of individuals and organizations within the United States economic system. Their goal has always been to create and catalyze divisions in communities. To achieve their objectives, actors combine PR tricks and tactics with government budgets. While the results are mixed, it is arguable that they have achieved some level of mission success. One prominent Russian politician described the process in such hyperbolic terms as, “Russia interferes in your brains, we change your conscience.” The accuracy of that statement is questionable, but it indicates their approach and level of commitment to the project. When individuals buy a Coca-Cola Starlight that decision may have been influenced by advertising, but it can not be attributed to mind control. Like any other global advertising campaign, the actions malign actors seek to influence require financial investments and a measure of willingness among its participants.

Prior reporting has revealed Russia’s Internet Research Agency had specialists and entire departments dedicated to exacting influence campaigns. They targeted specific journalists, CEOs, and other significant social influencers. It is unlikely that the IRA’s campaigns had a high rate of objective achievement. Still, researchers can point to some patterns of successful engagement and acquisition campaigns targeting key figures in US political ecosystems. Some of these figures demonstrated an acute awareness of Russia’s online interference, signaled a willingness to advance Russian interests, and extracted personal and professional benefits by collaborating with anti-democratic assets. Russia materially aided some of these figures in at least three distinct ways; Invested Online Engagement, Earned Media, and Direct Transactions.

The most common way some extracted material benefits from coordinated attacks on democratic social order is through invested online engagement. Social media engagement is a valuable commodity in the modern age. Many businesses are familiar with contracting advertising and PR agencies to amplify and improve their online engagement. The IRA and its successors behave similarly to those agencies and are ultimately business operations that make business investments. Each social media post and engagement action is a product that can be appraised. Take Twitter for example, on their platform between 2012 and 2018 the IRA generated over 3 million tweets from thousands of accounts, not to mention their likes and DMs. Each of these Twitter engagements would have a minimum production value that is calculable.

In addition to the cost of production, the market value of the IRA’s social media engagement would be comparable to contemporary ads sold by the platforms. The sponsorship rates of influencers with similar metrics in the projected marketplaces may also help assess engagement value. When calculating the total material value of these campaigns, appraisers should also consider if any donations or other types of online transactions directly or incidentally resulted from the engagement. Not every American individual or organization targeted by Russia’s invested online engagement campaigns should be considered active participants in anti-democratic behavior. But that argument becomes more difficult to make when considering those who collaborated via earned media and direct transactions.

Among the most apparent ways for individuals and organizations to materially benefit from attacks on our communities is the direct amplification and earned media value provided by state-controlled media channels such as Redfish, Ruptly, RT (Russia Today), Sputnik, and others. These channels leverage organizations and individuals with a record of supporting the objectives and narratives of the Russian state. They engage Americans in key markets with an established pattern of stoking community divisions. They promote the hysteric labeling of protests as “war zones.” They provide “political cover” for vandalism and violence against communities. They amplify figures who produce and distribute “riot porn.” They reward individuals and organizations advertising or accepting labels of militia or militancy, and those with a record of public bullying. The material value of earned media appearances, mentions, and amplification is a common calculation made by entry-level political and public relations professionals.

Thirdly, there are known examples of individuals who received direct payments from the Internet Research Agency for their collaboration producing content aiding divisive and disruptive narratives. The records of any potential conversations, professional contracts, or tax information exchanged to produce these transactions are not currently available in the public sphere. This makes it difficult to assess the material value of the content produced beyond the collaborators’ statements. Some of these collaborators claim they were unaware of IRA involvement in their transactions, these claims do not always align with the level of professionalism and experience they advertise for themselves.

This 0vert pattern of individuals and organizations materially benefiting from assaults on our democracy is dangerous and disturbing. Despite some of these actions initiating a decade ago, our communities are still learning about the behaviors of local and foreign malign influence campaigns as well as their collaborators. As we continue to research and explore this subject, it’s clear, we must take serious and immediate steps not only to reverse the rewarding of divisive and antidemocratic behavior but also to repair the devaluing of pro-democratic processes and actions.

To learn more about foreign-sponsored attacks on democracies, malign influence campaigns, local corruption or other related matters check out the links below:

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