The Russian government’s active measures campaign during the 2016 U.S. presidential election was a watershed moment in the study of modern information operations. Revelations that the Kremlin had purchased divisive political ads on social media platforms, leaked private campaign e-mails, established social media groups to organize offline protests, and deployed paid government trolls and automated accounts on social media sparked a groundswell of concern over foreign nation states’ exploitation of online information platforms. U.S. media organizations and the American public still largely associate disinformation campaigns with elections, viewing information operations through the prism of the 2016 campaign and, more recently, the 2018 midterms. Yet, analysis of Russia’s ongoing social media operations reveals that efforts to interfere in elections are but one tactical objective in a long-term strategy to increase polarization and destabilize society, and to undermine faith in democratic institutions. In order to understand the full scale and scope of the Kremlin’s efforts, it is therefore critical to view Russia’s subversive information activities as a continuous, relentless assault, rather than as a series of targeted, event-specific campaigns.
This report examines several million tweets from known and suspected Russian-linked Twitter accounts in an effort to expose the methods and messages used to engage and influence American audiences on social media. Data is primarily drawn from Hamilton 68, a project from the Alliance for Securing Democracy that has tracked Russian-linked Twitter accounts since August 2017. Additional data is sourced from Twitter’s release of more than 3,800 Internet Research Agency (IRA) accounts. Coupled with analysis of criminal complaints and indictments from the Department of Justice, this report builds a case that Russia’s election-specific interference efforts are secondary to efforts to promote Russia’s geopolitical interests, export its illiberal worldview, and weaken the United States by exacerbating existing social and political divisions. By examining Russia’s information operations on Twitter from both an operational and thematic perspective, this report also highlights the tactics, techniques, and narratives used to influence Americans online. Through this analysis, we illuminate the ongoing challenges of protecting the free exchange of information from foreign efforts to manipulate public debates.