The ongoing war in Ukraine should not overshadow the immense capabilities that Russia has displayed—and is capable of deploying—in the field of cyber warfare, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential elections where the role of Russian hackers was fundamental in destabilizing the American political landscape.
Let’s examine, albeit briefly, the stages through which the Russian destabilization campaign in 2016 was initiated. In June 2014, two Russian agents, Aleksandra Y. Krylova and Anna V. Bogacheva, were sent to the United States for a three-week mission. During their visit to nine states, including California, New York, and Texas, they gathered relevant information on American politics.
In Saint Petersburg, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former chef of Putin, began a disinformation campaign. With a multi-million dollar budget, the IRA recruited journalists and SEO specialists, paying them well above the industry average.
The IRA created fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter, used to spread propaganda and disinformation. They exploited American political crises to fuel discord and distrust. Among the most notable actions was the creation of Facebook groups like “Heart of Texas” and “United Muslims of America,” which promoted opposing events, causing real tensions. In particular, in Houston, protesters from these two factions came face to face in a street duel, orchestrated by Russian trolls.
The IRA also used stolen identities of American citizens to appear more credible and interacted with Trump’s volunteers and support groups. They published pro-Trump and anti-Clinton ads and spread racist and xenophobic memes with the aim of damaging Hillary Clinton and favoring Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
Additionally, they created pages dedicated to movements like Black Lives Matter and Instagram accounts to influence the African-American electorate, a key target for Clinton, trying to convince them not to vote.
The second stage focuses on Florida where the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian propaganda machine, paid an unsuspecting Trump supporter to build a cage on the back of a truck, with an actress impersonating Hillary Clinton inside, evoking protest scenes during demonstrations. This tactic, part of a broader disinformation operation, extended to key states like Pennsylvania, New York, and California.
The reach of this disinformation campaign was enormously vast: the IRA’s trolls reached 126 million users on Facebook and generated 288 million interactions on Twitter. These are significant numbers, especially considering that there are only 200 million registered voters in the United States, and only 139 million voted in 2016.
The most disturbing aspect of these operations was not so much their visibility, but the more obscure and hidden actions. Starting in 2014, Russian hackers began investigating the voter registration systems of the United States, penetrating states like Arizona and Illinois and deleting electoral data. These incursions into the American electoral system represent a direct threat to the integrity of democratic procedures.
In parallel, another hacking episode occurred, which would have even more serious repercussions. The day after the news of a cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), an enigmatic figure known as Guccifer 2.0 appeared on Twitter. This character, claiming the hacking as the work of a “lone hacker,” cast doubt on the statements of CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm that had identified sophisticated hacker groups behind the attack.
The real Guccifer was Marcel Lazar Lehel, a Romanian cybercriminal who made a name for himself by hacking prominent members of American politics. Guccifer 2.0, however, was a Russian creation, part of an elaborate narrative to mask the Kremlin’s involvement. The analysis of the metadata stolen from the DNC revealed clear traces of Russian origin, refuting Guccifer 2.0’s claims of being Romanian.
These revelations, along with other investigations, exposed a vast and complex scheme of Russian interference, extending well beyond mere online propaganda. Through a mix of social engineering, sophisticated hacking, and strategic disinformation, Russia not only influenced public opinion but also undermined trust in democratic institutions, leaving a permanent scar on the political and social fabric of the United States.
The third stage implemented by the Russians can be summarized in a term used precisely by Russian espionage, namely “kompromat,” a concept rooted in the tradition of Russian spying that refers to the practice of collecting and disseminating compromising information to discredit enemies. This strategy was at the center of Russian interference operations in the 2016 United States presidential elections. It was capable of skillfully mixing truth and falsehood, thus showing its effectiveness in manipulating public opinion and weakening democratic institutions.
The campaign began with a bold and sophisticated attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC), perpetrated by the same group of Russian hackers responsible for incursions into Ukrainian electoral systems. However, the scope and implications of these actions were initially obscured by the media frenzy that followed. The character of Guccifer 2.0 emerged as a key catalyst, passing stolen material to
media outlets like Gawker and The Smoking Gun. The revelation of these emails, which showed the DNC favoring Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, generated a media whirlwind, with sites such as The Guardian, The Intercept, and The Washington Post rushing to cover the story.
At a crucial moment, the most compromising emails were released just before the Democratic National Party’s national convention, exposing internal discussions about discrediting Sanders and revealing disparaging comments by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz about Sanders. These revelations caused internal turmoil and public dissent, demonstrating the effectiveness of kompromat in sowing discord.
Simultaneously, WikiLeaks began to release thousands of emails and documents, further fueling the fire. In a cunning move, Russian hackers also launched the dcLeaks website, with fake Facebook profiles like “Katherine Fulton” and “Alice Donovan” promoting it. These maneuvers show months, if not years, of planning and preparation.
The final blow came with the publication of John Podesta’s personal emails, revealing controversial speeches Clinton had been paid to give on Wall Street. These speeches were exploited to portray Clinton as inconsistent and non-transparent, influencing public opinion.
In the context of this campaign, activists and Bernie Sanders supporters on Facebook began to notice a wave of hostile comments and posts against Clinton. This activity, as it turned out, was part of a broader operation orchestrated by the Russian IRA, aimed at further dividing the electorate.
These events have left an indelible mark on the American political landscape, raising questions about the role of disinformation and foreign interference in modern democracies. The saga of Russian interference in the 2016 elections remains a crucial and disturbing chapter in the history of international relations and American politics, a powerful and worrying example of how digital technology can be exploited to manipulate events on a global scale.