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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Russian propaganda surfs a wave of distrust

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at a news conference.Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press

Facebook and Twitter say they are getting better at spotting the kind of fake accounts used by the Russian government to interfere in US politics. Too bad that it won’t be so easy for the rest of us.

That’s because the Kremlin’s propagandists are cranking out online ads, posts, and tweets that don’t look much different from the stuff Americans argue about every day on social media. Concerned about illegal immigration? So are the Russian operatives who used Facebook to promote a number of anti-immigrant rallies in the United States.

“We must stop taking in Muslim refugees!” read the posting for one such rally, according to The Daily Beast. “We demand open and thorough investigation of all the cases regarding Muslim refugees! All government officials, who are covering up for these criminals, should be fired!”


Stuff to get your heart pumping, yes?

Or is it police brutality that worries you? CNN reports the Russians were behind a phantom group, “Blacktivist,” that posted Facebook and Twitter messages in an effort to boost turnout at anti-racism protests.

“We are fed up with police violence, racism, intolerance and injustice that passed down from generation to generation. We are fed up with government ignorance and the system failing black people,” CNN quoted a post on Blacktivist’s Facebook page that promoted a march for a Baltimore man who died in police custody.

Sounds reasonable enough, on the face of it, right? But Facebook and Twitter have concluded Blacktivist was a Russian dummy and are turning over the accounts to US investigators. On Monday, Facebook gave Congress more than 3,000 advertisements that were published around the time of last year’s presidential campaign and were connected to a Russian ad firm. Facebook also said it would hire more than 1,000 people to help review global advertising.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of the problematic ads circulating in public. But you get the picture: The Russians are cleverly touching on legitimate concerns held by reasonable people, but doing so to widen the political fissures in our already divided nation.


They’ve had plenty of practice: During the 1960s, the old Soviet spy agency, the KGB, hatched a plan to oust Martin Luther King from the leadership of the US civil rights movement by planting negative stories about him in black newspapers. Apparently, the Soviets hoped that King would be replaced by someone more radical and divisive.

The KGB failed with King, but they might have done better if they’d had the Internet to work with. These days, it’s possible with a few keystrokes to flood the country with a tsunami of falsehoods, half-truths, and cherry-picked facts — all blended to generate fear, confusion, and rage.

We’ve had mixed success fighting other online perils. There’s as much spam e-mail as ever, but the filters are so good that little gets through to our inboxes. We’ve had a much harder time with malware programs hidden inside mail messages or injected onto our computers by malicious websites.

But the Russia problem is especially tough, because technology alone can’t solve it.

That’s not to let Facebook and Twitter off the hook. They can do more to identify and dismiss accounts that traffic in false information. There are ways to pinpoint suspicious sources. A post aimed at Americans but appearing at 3 a.m. Boston time may have been generated abroad. An account that retweets the same message hundreds of times is probably a bot; the same goes for accounts that have gone unused for months, then suddenly spew a torrent of new posts.


Social networks can aggressively shut down automated bot accounts devoted to the spread of propaganda. They can also rethink the current policy of selling online ads to practically anyone who can write a check. At the very least, they can require that ads on political topics include information about who’s paying for the message and the country where they reside.

But such measures get you only so far. Get too aggressive in fighting “fake news” and you’re bound to censor legitimate viewpoints. And while more transparency from paid advertisers sounds good, this does nothing against Russia’s army of online propagandists who spread the Kremlin’s messages through thousands of free Facebook and Twitter accounts.

For instance, we learned recently that Russians created a fake forum for Muslims on Facebook, then used it to spread lies that might appeal to some Muslims, like a claim that the terrorist group Al Qaeda was founded and funded by the CIA. As long as social networks are accessible to billions of people, they’ll never be entirely free of such rubbish.

The best defense against such propaganda is prudence, said Jim Ludes, executive director of the Pell Center of International Relations at Salve Regina University in Newport, R.I., and co-author of a new study on Russian efforts to influence US elections. “If something is too odd or too weird or too good to be true,” Ludes said, “either someone’s about to win a Pulitzer or it’s fake news.”


Indeed, in Baltimore a black minister said he had doubts about the Blacktivist group last year because its Facebook page didn’t have a profile picture, according to a Baltimore newspaper. In other cases, a picture can be a giveaway, because the creators of fake accounts often use stock photos downloaded from the Internet. If a profile photo looks too posed and professional, beware. You can double-check by running the photo through Google Images. If it’s a stock photo, you’ll probably know in seconds.

Also, look out for terms that aren’t commonly used in American English. Last year, US intelligence officials figured out that a website called was controlled by Russia partly because of its linguistic oddities, like describing Hillary Clinton as the “President of the Democratic Party.”

Ludes also recommends running a quick Google search, just to see if a story with scandalous allegations has been reported by reputable news sources, not just by rabble-rousing outfits like or InfoWars.

But what counts as reputable? These days, Americans hardly trust anybody. According to an August survey from Gallup, only 37 percent of Americans trust traditional news media to get the facts right.

The partisan split is even scarier. Among Democrats, 62 percent say the media are reliable, but for Republicans the number plunges to 14 percent.


Trust in government is even lower. The Pew Research Center says that in 1964, about 77 percent of Americans believed they could count on the federal government to do its job properly. Today, that number has fallen to 20 percent.

In a more trusting society, Russia’s disinformation campaign wouldn’t stand a chance. But we don’t live there anymore.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.