The Pentagon claimed a 2,000% increase in Russian troll activity on social media following the U.S.-led missile strikes against Syria Friday night.
Spokeswoman Dana White said in Saturday’s Pentagon briefing that the activity escalated during the 24 hours following the strike. “The Russian disinformation campaign has already begun,” White said.
White did not detail how the Defense Department calculated that figure, but said the Pentagon would supply “the facts, moving forward.”
Questions about the alleged 2,000% increase and how it was measured swirled on social media. The Pentagon did not respond to a request for comment Sunday.
U.S. forces launched targeted missile strikes Friday at military outposts in Syria where the government was believed to have stored chemical weapons that killed dozens of civilians last weekend. Syria has denied the use of chemical weapons on its people.
Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says her organization’s Hamilton 68 dashboard has tracked “a concerted campaign to present alternative narratives to sow doubt about the evidence that Assad was responsible for the chemical attack.”
Rosenberger, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, commended the Pentagon for its actions as a “key step in raising our defenses.”
“But it remains unclear what the U.S. is doing to combat Russia’s disinformation efforts, which continue unabated in am effort to shape American’s (and European’s) debates on a wide range of issues,” she said in an email.
Georgetown University professor Mark Jacobson said the Pentagon should provide more information to the American public on the activity it’s observing.
“I have no idea where they are pulling that number up from or how many accounts that is based on or who they were trolling,” said Jacobson, an expert on Russian influence operations. “It may be completely correct — not like Jim Mattis’ Pentagon to ever put out something that is not correct — but it would be more helpful for them to explain in a bit more detail so we understand what’s going on.”
A Russian troll army deployed by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency has been accused of hijacking social media conversations to sow political division on social media, particularly during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Pentagon has identified such efforts as a modern form of state-sponsored warfare. Last year, a Defense Intelligence report on Russian military capabilities included a section on the “weaponization” of information.
“Americans need to understand that the wars of the future will look more like this: Russia is investing significant resources to create propaganda and disinformation,” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement Saturday. “The fog of war will not be limited to our situation rooms and battlefields. Our enemies will work to create confusion and distrust among Americans here at home.”
Seven of top 10 URLs being shared by accounts tracked by Hamilton 68 were toeing the Kremlin line on Syria strikes as of Saturday morning, according to Rosenberger. As of Sunday morning, Russian-linked accounts were pushing a mix of “disinformation narratives” about the chemical attack and the poisoning of a Russian former spy in England, she said. The common link: sowing doubt about the conclusions reached by Washington and its allies about responsibility for these attacks.
Defense Secretary Mattis warned on Friday night about false information about the attack coming from Russia, a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“We can all see that a Russia disinformation campaign is in full force this morning,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Saturday at a U.N. Security Council meeting. “But Russia’s desperate attempts at deflection cannot change the facts.”