Campaign 2018: Social media influence campaigns undermine elections

Digital propaganda created and disseminated by nation-states may be the most effective method of election meddling.

Dan Patterson
Dan is a writer, reporter, and producer. He is currently a reporter for at CBS News and was previously a Senior Writer for TechRepublic.
Dan Patterson
2 min read
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Online propaganda organized by nation-state actors like Russia, China and Iran is part of the reason sites like Twitter and Facebook suddenly became toxic and polarized. These so-called "influence campaigns" propagate fake news, sew doubt and radicalize voters by preying on our worst impulses.

In 2016, Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate, known as the GRU, and Internet Research Agency (IRA) set up websites, ran Twitter and Facebook botnets, and conducted phishing attacks designed to steal sensitive information from Hillary Clinton's campaign for the presidency, according to US intelligence agencies. They acted on orders from Vladimir Putin, Russia's president, the intelligence agencies say.

Russian agents posted content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube designed to demean and marginalize Clinton while amplifying her rivals, including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

"[Tech] platforms are especially good at helping marketers hit a target audience with a refined message," says Josh Sternberg, the technology editor at Adweek. "Influence campaigns are no different. They're effective because social media marketing is effective."

The attack was successful, says Leo Taddeo, chief information security officer at Cyxtera Technologies and a former FBI special agent in charge of cyber operations in New York City. "They were able to create not only confusion in the pre-election process," says Taddeo, "but massive amounts of discord in a post-election environment in the US, continuing to this day."

Russia's propaganda efforts had a huge impact, Tadddeo says, and required a relatively small investment of time and money.

For more on influence campaigns and how social media may affect the upcoming midterm elections, read the full story on CBS News.

Campaign 2018: Election Hacking is a weekly series from CBS News & CNET about the cyberthreats and vulnerabilities of the 2018 midterm election.

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