Authoritarian Soft Power? Russia, International Cyber Conflict, and the Rise of “Information Warfare”

Lecture | April 19 | 4-6 p.m. | 223 Moses Hall

 Jaclyn Kerr, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

 Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES), Institute of International Studies

In the lead-up to the November 2016 U.S. presidential election, the American media audience was barraged by a surprising display of confidential information and correspondence stemming from hacked private and organizational emails and other records, most notably from the Democratic National Committee (DNC).  After months of speculation concerning Russian involvement in the hacking which led to the release of private documents and data on the sites WikiLeaks, DCLeaks, and Guccifer 2.0, in early October the Obama administration formally announced its belief that the Russian Federation was behind the disclosures and that these were intended to interfere with the United States election cycle. Reporting around these incidents swiftly resorted to labels of “cyber-attack” to describe the purported Russian involvement.  The administration also indicated its consideration of a “proportional” response. 

For those familiar with Russian politics, such strategic release of “compromising material” concerning political rivals does not appear so unusual, with so-called “kompromat” having been utilized to tarnish reputations and undermine opponent messages for years.  Recent Russian examples have included leaked recordings of private phone conversations by opposition leaders and video footage of prominent critics in bed with prostitutes.  The international deployment of such a tactic to influence the domestic politics of another country is a little more novel, however. 

These events underscored a conceptual tension that has played out on the international stage for years.  While Russia and China have led efforts to engage the international community in discussion of “information security” and a potential need for norms to protect the “information sovereignty” of countries from foreign adversaries, the United States and Western democracies have objected to such concepts, defined to include the content layer of the Internet, media, and other information flows as potential vehicles of aggression, lending legitimacy to domestic policies of Internet and media censorship in countries where the regimes feel threatened by the free flow of information.  The US and allies have focused on a narrower understanding of cybersecurity and cyber conflict in which aggression is conceptualized particularly in terms of destructive or kinetic effects – from sabotage of equipment to mass-casualty-inducing destruction of critical infrastructure.  While exfiltration of data for intelligence purposes or corporate espionage has also been a subject of concern, the notion of information or media content itself as a vector of aggression has been viewed as a problem only for those states that would deprive their citizens of independent media and freedom of expression.  But the vulnerability of democracies to the strategic use of information content for the sake of political influence has perhaps been undertheorized.

This talk examines Russia’s evolving information strategy abroad, examining the variety of different tools now being used to try to influence the domestic political discourse and media space of other countries.  From online trolls and bots to DDoS attacks, hacking, kompromat, deception, and targeted propagandistic media outlets, the talk outlines current Russian tactics of information manipulation and “information warfare” recently deployed in settings from Ukraine and Georgia to Syria and the United States.  The analysis discusses how many of these techniques – aimed at shaping the narrative in a complex information space – have long been utilized at home to manage Russia’s own public discourse and media space, but only recently emerged as tools in the country’s strategic playbook to exert its influence in international affairs.