Digital Propaganda: Russia or the Kid Next Door?

Sarah Lohmann

Sarah Lohmann

AICGS Senior Cyber Fellow

Dr. Sarah Lohmann is currently the Senior Cyber Fellow with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University. She manages projects which aim to increase agreement between Germany and the United States on improving cybersecurity and creating cybernorms. Since 2010, Dr. Lohmann has served as a university instructor at the Universität der Bundeswehr. She achieved her doctorate in political science there in 2013, when she became a senior researcher working for the political science department. Dr. Lohmann also serves as Communications Lead Faculty at the University of Washington, where she teaches classes on big data and preventing disinformation and misinformation and has helped develop a new Emerging Technology Certificate.

Prior to her tenure at the Universität der Bundeswehr, Dr. Lohmann was a press spokesman for the U.S. Department of State for human rights as well as for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs (MEPI). Before her government service, she was a journalist. She has been published in multiple books, including a handbook on digital transformation, Redesigning Organizations: Concepts for the Connected Society (Springer, 2020) and written over a thousand articles in international press outlets. Her current areas of research include cybersecurity as it relates to election security, national security, transatlantic relations, energy, international law, and big data.

Coming in Summer 2019, the book Redesigning Organizations – Concepts for the Connected Society (Springer Nature 2019) includes a chapter by AICGS Senior Cyber Fellow Dr. Sarah Lohmann.

Chapter Summary

Russian propaganda efforts have changed significantly since the Cold War era. Back then, NATO served to support the will of the people yearning for change in Soviet bloc countries to ensure democratic elections could take place despite personal threats levied at opposition figures. Today, using digital espionage, Russia has vastly increased its reach, gotten to know its audience better, personalized the messaging even more intimately and cloaked it in the voice of fellow nationals. Russia has delivered its messaging to the receivers’ social media accounts, and played on fears and divisions in the receivers’ community. NATO, seventy years on, has no choice but to continue to respond in a powerful and sustained way in order to protect the democratic will and expression of its member states. But it cannot be blindsided by focusing on one adversary alone.

In contrast, China’s more subtle digital propaganda methods often get overlooked. With ten times the number of troll farms, and more personnel, financial, and infrastructure resources, China is playing a long-term game in its democracy interference efforts. Just as the United States and Europe focus their energy on defeating these two foreign meddlers, they must also be aware of those working from within their borders to affect the democratic process. At the same time that the Russians may be tracking users’ online profiles and behavior in order to influence who they vote for, it is equally possible that U.S. domestic political parties, fringe nationalist extremist groups, and special interest lobbies are doing the same. Can democratic nations create effective defense efforts that transcend domestic borders? To answer these questions, this chapter examines what is meant by digital propaganda, who is using it during elections with what tools, what is currently being done to counter the challenges, and what remains to be done.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.