Earlier this year, three former and current officials from the Department of Homeland Security spoke out about the agency, warning that President Donald Trump was quietly disassembling two task forces that had been established in response to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election. Both of those groups were part of the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Agency (CISA), and one of them focused on securing election infrastructure, the other worked to identify foreign disinformation campaigns on social media—and both of them have been drastically scaled back in the past few months.
The task forces could be shrinking because the administration believes that border security and immigration issues are bigger priorities, or it could be because it also doesn't really believe that Russian interference was an issue during the previous election—or that it will be during the next one. (During the G20 summit in June, Trump jokingly shook his finger at Russian president Vladimir Putin and told him not to "meddle in our election, please.")
Regardless, the DHS did design and publish an infographic about pineapple on pizza, and how that might relate to foreign disinformation campaigns. "To date, we have no evidence of Russia (or any nation) actively carrying out information operations against pizza toppings," the agency wrote. "This infographic is an ILLUSTRATION of how information operations have been carried out in the past to exploit divisions in the United States."
The DHS highlighted five techniques that foreign influencers—also referred to as bots or trolls—have been known to use to spread disinformation on social media. The methods they mention involve targeting divisive issues, frequently changing their usernames and amplifying and distorting the conversation. If those processes are successful, then those trolls might "strike gold," the DHS says, by reaching mainstream news sources or causing real-life conflicts between Americans. (Although not mentioned by on this graphic, Russian-controlled social media accounts have also successfully organized "dozens" of political rallies.)
Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies online disinformation and social media, says that the DHS' infographic is largely accurate.
"The graphic is fine. The real problem is that a one-page graphic isn't going to solve our problems," he told VICE. "It could have been more effective to actually use a debate that foreign disinformation has had, like about [Colin] Kaepernick or something else, but I get that [DHS] doesn't want to be political at all.
"The pineapple on pizza is silly, but it's also apt. A lot of the things that do get Americans overly fired up—things that have become political issues—are at their core, kind of silly as well."
Linvill and his colleague Patrick Warren, another associate professor at Clemson, spent the better part of 2017 identifying almost 3 million (!!!) tweets that were written and posted by Twitter accounts known to have originated from Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is often referred to as its "troll farm" or "troll factory." The two professors have continued their work to identify other IRA accounts and additional sources of foreign disinformation, and to determine how their methods might evolve in the months before the next election. They have also been asked to share their research with the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, the U.S. Army Cyber command, and yes, the Department of Homeland Security.
Linvill believes that, for the most part, everyone knows that Russian trolls exist on social media, but he also worries that our increased awareness might become its own kind of downside. "I have seen intelligent disinformation researchers on social media, people that I respect, point at a conversation online and suggest that foreign disinformation was responsible for it, and they were just flat wrong," he said. "I think that is nearly as big a problem as the actual disinformation, because it's playing into the Russians' hands.
"The Russians want us questioning every conversation that's happening, they want us questioning people that disagree with us, they want us to suggest that they're Russian trolls, because that's an easy ad hominem attack and it only serves to drive us further apart. That may be one of the biggest impacts that the Russians have had. Now we're questioning everything, when really it's just people disagreeing with us."
Although Linvill suggests that the IRA may change its approach in the coming months—he says he's already seen an increase in doxxing—their actual methods seem to be working just fine. "They're using the same tactics that are used in PR and marketing, trying to lure people in with posts that are heartwarming or otherwise inspiring," he said. "That works whether you're a foreign troll or not."
So as we start counting down the months and weeks until the 2020 primaries (god help us all), we should all be wary of possible Russian influence, but we also need to be aware of our own biases and how that might cause us to oppose—or to relate to—some rando on social media.
"One of the really good pieces of advice on that infographic is the idea that in real life, people often have more than one interest," he said. "If somebody's only talking about politics, do you really want to engage with that person? Do you really want to follow them? Think about it for a minute. Whether or not they're a foreign troll, they're possibly just some political hack or someone who gets on Twitter to yell at others."
It's not all politics all the time though: some of the IRA-connected accounts that he and Warren identified share their thoughts about a lot of inconsequential stuff, too—including pizza toppings.
"And the Russians were very much against pineapple on pizza," he said.