How Russia wins an election

5. Hack and release: Russia’s synchronization of hacking and influence operations provides a one-two punch for manipulating democratic audiences. In the old days, Soviet Kompromat, or compromising materials, were used by KGB agents to encourage Western officials and public figures to speak and act in ways more amenable to Soviet objectives, via threats to expose criminality, corruption or sexual misbehavior. Today, Russia’s hacking teams, two of which security researchers have dubbed Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, conduct wide-ranging kompromat hacking into thousands of current and former Western government officials, media personalities and national security experts. Russia then strategically releases true, manipulated true, and false information to data dumpsites such as WikiLeaks. These “information nukes” fuel Russian overt propaganda and supply dozens of fringe conspiratorial news sites. Russia’s cyber kompromat playbook appears to have a new target. Germany, the key remaining player in the EU, has already noted Russian hacks against its parliament in 2015, along with a sharp uptick in propaganda ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.

6. Use brute force to overwhelm adversaries: Soviet military doctrine employed the principle of mass to counter Western forces—employing three to four times the artillery of their enemies. Once the Soviets found a break in enemy lines, they’d exploit the breach, occupy a position in the rear area of the enemy and then fight from a defensive position. Today’s Russian social media influence operations employ a similar approach. After using hacked information to craft manipulated truths, Russia propagates and amplifies stories using automated bots. Series of accounts programmed to appear as members of the target audience comment, retweet and share breaking conspiracies at a dizzying pace, turning keyword hashtags into Twitter trends. When successful, this artificial volume entices mainstream media outlets to engage on the trending issue, further amplifying the Kremlin’s narrative. Even if the false or manipulated truth pushed by Russian bots is later proven false, the firehose of fake or manipulated news often drowns out the mainstream media’s efforts to correct the record. The net result is an information world in which Western electorates cannot distinguish fact from fiction, eroding the integrity of democratic institutions and the voters’ trust.