US Cyber Command operation took down Russian troll farm for midterm elections

The Internet Research Agency, the best known of the Russian troll farms that create large amounts of propaganda, has been accused by the US government of meddling in the 2016 elections.
The Internet Research Agency, the best known of the Russian troll farms that create large amounts of propaganda, has been accused by the US government of meddling in the 2016 elections.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The United States military took down a Russian troll farm before midterm elections in a cyber attack that continued for several days after the vote, part of what US officials have said is a persistent campaign to block and deter interference in American democracy.

The operation was intended to prevent the Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, Russia, from spreading propaganda or disinformation aimed at undermining confidence in the midterm vote or the results of the election, US officials said.

The operation was aimed at taking the Internet Research Agency offline for several days, from Election Day on Nov 6 last year until the results were certified by local officials.

The Internet Research Agency, the best known of the Russian troll farms that create large amounts of propaganda, has been accused by the US government of meddling in the 2016 elections.

It is not part of the Russian government but is controlled by oligarchs loyal to President Vladimir Putin.

Intelligence agencies had assessed that the Russian troll farms that create and spread disinformation in the US and Europe were likely to step up their disinformation activity on the day of the vote and while votes were being counted.

Officials said the Election Day operations were part of a larger campaign led by US Cyber Command and the National Security Agency to secure the midterm vote.

Those operations began with a campaign of direct messages sent to Russian operatives who had created disinformation and propaganda aimed at sowing dissent and undermining confidence in US voting systems. Those direct messages were aimed at deterring the creators of propaganda.

The Election Day operation, reported on Tuesday (Feb 26) by The Washington Post, was conducted under new authorities authorised by the White House.

The new authorities, officials said, have sped up decision-making, ensuring that bureaucratic concerns do not get in the way of taking action.

Intelligence officials have said it is difficult, if not impossible, to use cyber operations to take an adversary offline permanently.

Cyber weapons typically exploit unpatched vulnerabilities in software. Given time, the target of an operation can find workarounds or fix software problems, restoring its Internet connectivity or computer operations.

Because of that, officials said, the operations against the Internet Research Agency were designed to last only for a limited number of days.

Mr Joseph Holstead, deputy director of Cyber Command public affairs, said the military did not "discuss classified cyber space planning and operations".

"US Cyber Command will continue to work as part of the whole-of-government effort to defend our elections and democratic institutions from foreign malign influence," Mr Holstead said.

After the election, under another White House executive order, the director of national intelligence conducted an analysis of foreign interference during the midterm election.

That report, which has not been made public, found that the Russians sought to interfere in the vote, not by trying to hack voting machines but by spreading disinformation.

The report found that Russia used social media, fake personas and Moscow-controlled media to inflame opposite ideological sides with an aim of further polarising the United States.

On Capitol Hill, intelligence committee officials declined to discuss the Election Day cyber operation.

But after a hearing on the rise of authoritarianism in Russia, China and elsewhere, Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, who leads the House Intelligence Committee, said Russian efforts to interfere in elections were continuing.

"There is a prioritised part of the Russian agenda to not just interfere in our democracy but interfere in democracies in Europe," Mr Schiff said. "They are pushing their authoritarian model to undermine institutions that reinforce democracy."