How Foreign Influence Works
Awareness around foreign influence is having a bit of a heyday. The 2016 election brought to light that foreign countries, in this case Russia, were keen to sow discord within the U.S. population. Outside of the U.S., Russia’s influence campaigns against Ukraine are well documented and ramped up after the annexation of Crimea and onset of hostilities in Donbas. China’s use of hundreds of thousands of social media accounts to overwhelm and silence those who contradict the official message of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is currently a point of conversation in social and traditional media outlets. Of late, these Chinese-managed accounts challenge postings relating to the COVID-19 virus and its impacts outside of China. In late May, Chinese-managed social media accounts and government spokesmen frequently commented on the protests and riots sweeping the U.S.
Both Russia and China view influence operations as a key tool to project their power and influence abroad. Their efforts are overt, using government offices and spokesmen to criticize American leaders, U.S.-based events, and U.S. engagement abroad, as well as covert where they seek to hide their involvement in the campaign. In reality, outside of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, influence campaigns are cost effective and can reap big rewards for each country – the internal U.S. political polarization in the pre- and post-2016 election world prove that for a relatively low cost, Russia was able to have a significant impact.
Historically, influence operations and campaigns were fairly expensive. Co-opting a media house, supporting a grassroots organization, or financing a large event such as a concert cost in both manhours and cash money to hire people or book acts. Smaller scale operations, such as printing fliers, engaging university students, or hosting small gatherings were quite common undertakings for all large governments to influence audiences abroad, but they were often not great at generating buzz and creating major change. Finding the “right” people or organization to front a campaign, sourcing funding from government agencies, and identifying the correct message for a specific audience took time and effort. However, once the digital world opened up, things changed, and influence operations became more accessible, potentially reaching millions of people at a fraction of the cost of traditional influence operations.
Basic websites, then blogs, and now social media enable individuals, organizations, and governments a greater ability to conduct influence projects and campaigns to meet specific goals. For a county like Russia, facing budget shortfalls and a shrinking population, it is relatively inexpensive to make an impact in the digital world. China, with its access to human capital, is able to staff massive offices of hackers and digital actors. Identifying those who are apt to be receptive to their message is easier in digital platforms than off-line surveys using well tested marketing tools. It is also far easier to spread a message far and wide on digital platforms – ideally snagging new supporters who key in on the message despite the noise. And it is cheap. Aside from salaries for digital actors creating profiles and posting content, ad placement and post promoting can be less than $100 to reach people with traits that the purchaser selects.
For Russia and China, highlighting both online and offline why the U.S. is weak is a point in their favor. Their goal is always to discredit ideals that America advocates at home and abroad – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, access to a free internet, and human rights, among other liberties. Highlighting that American-style democracy is messy supports that a stronger state or strongman system, justifying the using force to quell discontent or cancelling an election. Inciting fear that election results were tampered with allows Russia and China to object with the U.S.’s efforts to monitor and advocate for democracy abroad, often in places where either country has a positive relationship with the regime or economic interests. Companies like Graphika, who have mapped and evaluated digital messaging posted by China and Russia over time, consistently find that their digital actors focus on discrediting democracy, supporting Putin and the CCP, and countering information that shows their countries in a poor light.
In terms of American audiences, pouring salt on long-standing political, social, and economic wounds ensures that decision makers at all levels are too busy managing domestic issues to engage internationally. Race, urban vs. rural, religion, gun control, abortion, and many other divisive social and cultural issues provide ample fodder for Russian and Chinese online and offline campaigns. Though not openly explored, each country could be providing funding to grassroots organizations to support both sides of the fight, such as pro-life and pro-choice groups – just to keep the fight going. The leadership and rank-and-file members of grassroots organizations likely have no idea that donors could include funding from foreign governments or agents of foreign governments who hope that the fight never ends.
In an election year, especially a presidential election year, foreign influence campaigns to incite infighting within the American population is a given. In a polarized U.S., the work of the Russians and Chinese is easier than in times when the nation is united. As the U.S. focuses inwards, both countries will look to expand their foreign relationships in Africa, Latin America, and southern and eastern Asia where needed markets, resources, and new friends await.