Russia is engaged in a determined assault on Western democracies and their institutions. At its core, this is an attack on public trust and confidence. While policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have made important strides to combat Russian disinformation operations as they pertain to election security, little has been done to acknowledge and adequately address the threats against justice systems.
Traditionally a democracy’s judiciary is among the most trusted institution in the government. Because of this, it might seem like an unlikely target for disinformation campaigns by a foreign power. However, the judiciary is also, like elections, entirely dependent upon public acceptance of the legitimacy of its outcomes. The idea of a system built on the rule of law and justice delivered by a fair and impartial judiciary is a critical pillar of democracy and one of its greatest strengths. Erode the public’s belief in that idea, and the pillar begins to crumble.
Institutions must continue to work to live up to our ideals. But proactive steps must also be taken to safeguard justice systems in democracies like the United States and elsewhere. These systems must be actively protected from outside interference designed to undermine them. Perhaps more importantly, targeted countries need to ensure that their institutions and public are resilient in the face of adversary information operations that threaten to erode trust in democratic institutions.
The adversary most actively using disinformation to weaken democracies today is Russia. To better appreciate the threat landscape and the policies that might be considered to protect justice systems, we need to first understand how exactly Moscow uses disinformation to undermine these institutions.
How Does Russia Craft Its Messaging?
The average layperson needs to only spend a few minutes in the comment section of a news story on Facebook to understand which issues are politically controversial. As a nation-state, Russia uses this same information to measure and identify exploitable social divides endemic to targeted democracies.
Social media is the perfect barometer for Russia to gauge which issues are most divisive in a society. Democracies guarantee free speech and that provides Russia an open window into authentic political dialogue among the target democracy’s population.
With regard to the justice system, Russia uses its understanding of what issues are most schismatic to seize upon controversial cases. By exacerbating legitimate grievances and manipulating the public’s lack of familiarity with the legal system and due process, Moscow identifies entry points for influence efforts that are particularly detrimental to faith in the rule of law.
It is through these entry points of divisiveness that Russia can successfully package disinformation narratives into social contagions: virulent rumors, conspiracies, and distortions designed to rapidly permeate a target population. Russia spreads these contagions targeting democratic justice systems through three primary channels—by spreading disinformation on social media, by propagating it on Russian state-sponsored media outlets, and finally, by reinforcing it through statements by top officials including President Vladimir Putin.
Channel One: Social Media
Russian disinformation is hidden beneath the surface of the vast sea of social media content. It deploys social media trolls and bots to spread online content that undermines faith in democracies and their institutions. For example, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian organization with ties to Putin and Russian intelligence, uses fake accounts on major social network platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, and Twitter to spread disinformation. Accounts linked to the IRA have been active worldwide for years.
In October 2018, Twitter identified and released millions of IRA-linked tweets dating back to mid-2014. The archive of tweets helps us understand how global Russia’s campaign is. The IRA published content in dozens of languages, and while most of the content was focused on issues in the United States and Russia, the IRA-led campaigns against European democracies as well.
The tweets also help us capture details about different disinformation attacks. Not only can we discern where Russian disinformation is most prevalent, but we can also track the frequency of tweets over time. By analyzing when Russian-sponsored tweets were most prevalent, we can make inferences as to why certain types of tweets were pushed out on certain days. We can track spikes in tweets and compare that data alongside key events that were happening around the world during that time. Based on tweet content, we can then go back and see if Russia was actively distorting or misrepresenting a certain issue, or if Russia was simply trying to flood the internet with other news as to distract or take attention away from stories they do not want gaining traction.
Researchers from Clemson University collected approximately 3 million tweets from the IRA Twitter network and categorized them into right- and left-leaning tweets. We studied a subset of these tweets related to the U.S. justice system and the rule of law.
What we observed is that the content of Russian judicial- targeted tweets often is intentionally designed to make readers question: “Will my justice system actually protect me?” Consider this tweet from IRA-affiliated accounts:
- @BleepThePolice - The American (in)justice system does not need a few tweaks, but it needs to be completely overhauled. - 9/1/2016
Both the account username and the content of the tweets work to portray the U.S. justice system as broken. It is challenging for the average Twitter user to recognize that this tweet is Russian propaganda because the content is in English, and echoes similar complaints made by U.S. citizens.
Russian disinformation attempted to exacerbate racial tensions by posing as Black Lives Matter-affiliated groups to highlight instances of racial prejudice by the U.S. justice system.
IRA Twitter activity targeting the left spiked after police shootings of African Americans.¹ For example, the announcement of the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings in 2016 showed spikes in Russian tweets related to the rule of law.
Russian attacks on the U.S. justice system are also highly opportunistic. For example, Russia distorted the online conversation when a court found an undocumented immigrant not guilty of killing California resident Kate Steinle.
Examine the following tweets about the Kate Steinle trial:
Here, we see that Russian propaganda worked to amplify an existing divide within the American public. The tweets embed the idea that the “activist” judges and “liberal” lawyers involved in the case were acting politically, not independently. By portraying a politicized court during a high-profile trial involving an illegal immigrant, Russia targeted an impassioned audience vulnerable to drawing conclusions not just about the case but about the entire system.
Russia also uses social media to promote gatherings and protests of decisions made by U.S. prosecutors and courts. IRA operatives used Facebook events to bring protestors into the streets. For instance, the IRA-sponsored Facebook page, “Secured Borders” attempted to organize a protest in Twin Falls, Idaho, in response to an alleged assault of a minor by refugees. This effort failed, but similar efforts in Germany led to over a thousand individuals protesting across the country over what turned out to be false allegations of an abduction by refugees.
Russia inundates social media platforms with disinformation in order to make individuals feel like their fellow Americans have lost faith in the U.S. justice system. The aim, over time, is that these individuals too will begin to doubt the integrity of one of the most vital institutions in our democracy.
Channel Two: State-Linked Media Outlets
In a much more visible fashion, Russian media outlets also try to discredit the judicial systems in the United States and Europe. Both Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, the two leading Kremlin-backed media outlets targeting an international audience, have segments dedicated to advancing this narrative. On RT, for example, the segment America’s Lawyer brands itself as exposing a corrupt and broken U.S. justice system. RT-UK’s channel selectively exposes its audience to stories of corruption and bias within UK prisons and the courts.
America’s Lawyer, RT
“To say that the justice system in the United States is broken would be a gross understatement. Corporations and corrupt politicians have taken control, turning the once impartial judiciary into a tool for the elite to use for their own gain.”
–America’s Lawyer tagline
Russia purposefully tries to “Americanize” these programs to make the messaging more credible to U.S. audience. The programs are broadcast in clear English. They chose a U.S. trial attorney as the host of America’s Lawyer. Ads for the program show his photograph and ask, “Is this American enough for you?”
Criminal Injustice segment on the Loud & Clear podcast, Sputnik
“The weekly series “Criminal Injustice” continues, where the hosts discuss the most egregious conduct of our courts and prosecutors and how justice is denied to so many people in this country…”
–Opening to Loud & Clear's Criminal Injustice segment
Sputnik’s weekly segment Criminal Injustice on its Loud & Clear podcast similarly portrays itself as bringing attention to justice being denied to citizens, mixing legitimate grievances with distorted information. Russia’s goal for these programs is not to make the U.S. legal system more just; it is to tell an unrelenting one-sided story to get Americans to believe the system is as corrupt and broken as the legal system in Russia. Putin’s hope is that Americans will give up on democratic institutions, the way so much of his own population has come to accept the corruption in Russia.
Russia Today – United Kingdom
The Kremlin’s judicial-targeted disinformation campaigns are not limited to the United States. Consider this clip published by RT’s UK channel directly after the UK Supreme Court made a ruling that restricted Elizabeth May’s ability to pursue a Brexit unilaterally.
The title itself is a leading question designed to imply that UK Supreme Court judges are biased. The clip then attacks each Supreme Court judge by highlighting each justice’s tenuous connections to the European Union, thereby implying their inability to render an impartial verdict when ruling on the Brexit issue. By calling the objectivity of the UK Supreme Court into question, Kremlin-sponsored media outlets are inciting the UK public to doubt the legitimacy of their judicial system.
Channel Three: Officials in Russian Government
High-level Russian government officials, including President Vladimir Putin, echo these messages in statements directed at domestic and international audiences. In doing so, they often adopt the language of international law to paint the Kremlin as the true champion of justice compared to a hypocritical West, while combating criticisms of their own corrupt regime at home.
President Putin comments on a bogus lawsuit Russian opened against the United States in relation to the close of diplomatic compounds under the Trump
administration. The comments were directed both to his own citizens, and people in parts of the world where the United States and Russia compete for influence. The aim is to lessen the appeal of democracy by showing its judicial system as biased and unfair.
Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia
Lavrov criticizes the Obama administration’s closure of diplomatic compounds and claiming it was due to Russophobia. His comments were meant to imply that the U.S. government does not have respect for the rule of law and that it makes decisions primarily for political expediency.
Source: BBC News
President Putin comments on a rumor on Russian state television that a migrant who raped a boy in Austria was let go because he did not speak German and thus could not understand the boy was saying “no.” With this statement, Putin aims to sow mistrust in the motivations of the justice system by suggesting that a just outcome was not reached due to political sympathy for migrants. In reality, the court had not freed the accused—he was to be tried separately for rape, while charges of sexual assault still stand. The allegation about language problems leading to the defendant’s release was false.
Source: Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, The Independent, and Russia Insight via YouTube
Peskov refers to U.S. cable and digital TV providers considering pulling RT off the Air. A few months earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice called for RT to register as a foreign agent to provide more transparency into RT’s funding. Russian officials have tried hard to paint these instances as examples of how hypocritical the United States is in terms of its First Amendment values—the Kremlin is testing the bounds of our freedom of speech.
Lavrov refers to the Skripal investigation in the United Kingdom. Sergei Skripal was a former Russian military officer and UK double agent. He and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury, England. Russia denied and even mocked the notion that it was responsible.
Source: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation
Putin’s first public comments on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation since its conclusion. While it is still too early to fully assess the Russian responses on social media and inauthentic domains, preliminary analysis on Russian state-sponsored media shows that the Kremlin looks to make a mockery of the investigation.
Source: AP News
Putting It All Together: The Lisa Case
In January 2016, Russia launched a disinformation campaign in Germany based on a fabricated story about a 13-year old Russian-German girl named Lisa. Lisa was supposedly kidnapped and raped by Arab migrants in Berlin. However, after further investigation, investigators discovered that no such occurrence had happened.
Nevertheless, Russia jumped on the story. Even after German police had confirmed that Lisa was at a friend’s house and had not in fact been missing, Russia peddled conspiracy theories about how this was a coverup perpetrated by the German government via state-sponsored media outlets, social media, and statements made by government officials.
The story was originally picked up by First Russia TV, and soon 10 other Russian-language Kremlin-sponsored media outlets began reporting on the kidnapping and rape. Then, the coverage was picked up all over German social media platforms, primarily Facebook.
Even after German officials made clarifying statements on the case to combat the false narratives, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov publicly stated: “We wish Germany success in dealing with the enormous problems caused by migrants. I hope these issues do not get swept under the rug, repeating the situation when a Russian girl’s disappearance in Germany was hushed up for a long time . . . Truth and justice must prevail here.”
The sentiment was similarly echoed in January 2016 in the following Russian Embassy London Tweet (translated from German): “The German Government has spread migrants on their land like a rug under their feet. Now it is trying to sweep its crimes under this carpet.”
The inundation of false information surrounding the Lisa case incited protests across Germany. While German police tried on numerous occasions to refute the false claims and rampant disinformation, they were challenged by German legal restrictions on releasing information relating to minors.
Russia used all three channels of disinformation to paint the German police as incompetent and ineffective. Each incendiary tweet, each misleading headline, and each unsolicited official statement contributed to was aimed at a gradual erosion of the public’s faith in the German justice system.
When Russian propaganda successfully erodes public confidence in the rule of law, it undermines the actual institutions of justice. Perceived integrity can be as important as actual integrity, and for a democracy’s justice system to work, it must not only act in a fair and impartial manner, but it must also be perceived as fair and impartial.
What we have observed in places where totalitarianism has taken hold is that, as public skepticism about an institution grows, citizens eventually stop trying to hold those institutions accountable, believing them incapable of living up to original aspirations. Institutions follow suit, and democracy unravels.
It is imperative that policymakers understand the scale of the damage that Russian disinformation campaigns can wreak and act to protect the vital democratic institutions that are most vulnerable to future interference.
About the Authors
Senior Adviser, Homeland Security, International Security Program
Suzanne Spaulding is a senior adviser for Homeland Security in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). She also serves as the director of the Defending Democratic Institutions project. Prior to joining CSIS, Ms. Spaulding served as Under Secretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) which has since become the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). In this role, she was charged with strengthening cybersecurity and protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure. Ms. Spaulding has also served in Republican and Democratic administrations and on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Before working at DHS, she was general counsel for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and minority staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
Program Manager and Research Associate, International Security Program
Devi Nair is a program manager and research associate in the International Security Program at CSIS. In this position, she provides research and program support to the Defending Democratic Institutions project. Prior to working at CSIS, her primary areas of study were conflict ethics, U.S. military exit strategies, and humanitarian interventions. Devi holds an A.B. in government and comparative religion from Harvard College, and an M.T.S. degree in religion, ethics, and politics from Harvard Divinity School.
Researcher, International Security Program
Arthur Nelson is a researcher with the International Security Program at CSIS, where he focuses on information warfare, computational propaganda, and emerging technology. Prior to joining CSIS, he worked for the Government of Ontario’s electoral agency where he supported strategic planning and policy related to cybersecurity and disinformation. He holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Toronto.
Special Thanks to:
This report has been made possible through the generous support of Democracy Fund and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We would also like to thank our partners at the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Law and National Security, as well as the individual contributions of Harvey Rishikof, Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, and Holly McMahon, for lending their expert advice for this report.
A product of the Andreas C. Dracopoulos iDeas Lab, the in-house digital, multimedia, and design agency at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.