May 19, 2017

HYBRID WARFARE: How Russia Weaponized Social Media in Crimea.

During the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Russian government spent more than $19 million to fund 600 people to constantly comment on news articles, write blogs, and operate throughout social media.[4] They intended to sway public and international opinion, overwhelm the voices of dissidents online, and create an image of a population supportive of the annexation. To accomplish this, social cyber attackers appealed to the pro-Russian population of Crimea by spreading rumors of hate and fear. One such rumor involved the crucifixion of a three-year-old child in the public square of Slovyansk by Ukrainian soldiers, but independent sources quickly debunked this story as false.[5]

Despite the falsehood of this story, people believed it as it spread among the population. The supporters of annexation accepted this story as truth because it appealed to their bias against the Ukrainian forces in the area. Pro-Russian cyber-attackers released several similar stories in an attempt to further polarize the population in Crimea. An example of this involved the story of an alleged emergency physician named Igor Rosovsky at the epicenter of the May 2014 Odessa violence who asserted that Ukrainian supporters attacked Crimean nationalists and burned them alive. When “Igor” attempted to treat the nationalists, the Ukrainian fighters stopped him and made disparaging anti-Semitic comments towards him.[6] This Facebook post spread rapidly among Russian social media sites such as Vkontakte, where users shared the story 5,000 times within 24 hours. Again, Western analysts debunked this story, like the Slovyansk crucifixion of a child.[7]

Despite the invalidity of such stories, social media platforms allow a message to reach millions of people faster than ever before. The rate of interactions on these platforms vary from two to 70 interactions per post per 1,000 users.[8] For those attempting to shape a narrative, this platform is one of the fastest ways to spread rumors and generate fear or hatred against their opposition. Teams of social cyber attackers such as those involved in the Russian annexation of Crimea target demographics already sympathetic to their cause and stoke that flame to inspire them to take action.

Read the whole thing.

The takeaway? A relatively tiny $19 million investment in social media played a major part in Russia’s lightning campaign to invade and annex a strategically vital peninsula. That’s a valuable lesson, and one Moscow won’t forget.