Russian disinformation is about immigration. The real aim is to undercut Ukraine aid

WASHINGTON — For Vladimir Putin, victory in Ukraine could come via Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

In recent weeks, Russian state media and online accounts linked to the Kremlin have spread and amplified misleading and inflammatory content about U.S. immigration and border security. The campaign appears designed to stoke outrage and polarization before the 2024 White House elections, and experts who study Russian disinformation say Americans can expect more as Putin looks to weaken support for Ukraine and cut off a vital aid supply.

In social media posts, online videos and website stories, these stories misrepresent the impact of immigration, highlight stories of crimes committed by immigrants and warn of dire consequences if the US does not take tough action at the border with Mexico. Many are misleading, filled with cherry-picked data or debunked rumors.

The turn toward the United States comes after two years in which Russia’s vast disinformation apparatus was busy spreading propaganda and disinformation about its invasion of Ukraine. Experts who study how authoritarian states use the internet to spread disinformation say eroding support for Ukraine remains Russia’s top priority — and the Kremlin is only finding new ways to do it.

“Things have changed, even in the last few days,” said Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically, a technology company that tracks disinformation campaigns. While experts and government officials have long warned about Russia’s intentions, Walter said the content spotted so far this year “is the first indication I’ve seen that Russia is actually going to focus on the U.S. election.”

This month, Logical identified dozens of pro-Russian accounts posting about immigration in the US, with a particular interest in promoting recent anti-immigration rallies in Texas. A recent investigation by Logically concluded that, after two years largely devoted to the war in Ukraine, Russia’s disinformation apparatus “has entered 2024 with a focus on the US”

Many posts highlight crimes allegedly committed by recent immigrants or suggest that migrants are a burden on local communities. Some claims are posted by accounts with small audiences; others are created by state media sites with millions of followers.

This week, accounts were seized over the recent death of a Georgia nursing student and the arrest of a Venezuelan man who entered the US illegally and was allowed to stay to continue his immigration case. The killing quickly became a rallying cry for former President Donald Trump and other Republicans who suggest migrants are more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens. The evidence does not support these claims.

The content, crafted in English, has quickly found its way onto websites and platforms popular with American voters. For example, footage of a recent anti-immigration protest broadcast by Russian channel RT was viewed thousands of times this week on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, and sparked angry reactions from other users.

Russian newspaper Sputnik published a story this week about growing calls for a US-Mexico border wall, a priority for Trump, who has failed to complete his job as president. An analysis of other sites that later linked to the Sputnik piece shows that more than half were in the US, according to data from online analytics firm Overall, Americans make up English-language Sputnik’s largest audience.

US officials have warned that Russia could try to interfere in dozens of countries’ elections in 2024, when more than 50 countries, accounting for half the world’s population, will hold national elections. While Russia has a strategic interest in the outcome of many of them – the European Parliament, for example – few offer the opportunity and reward that America offers.

Regarding Russia’s quest to conquer Ukraine, the American election stakes could not be higher this year. President Joe Biden has pledged to fully support Ukraine. The Republicans were much less supportive. Trump has publicly praised Putin and the former president has suggested he would encourage Russia to attack America’s NATO allies if they do not pay their fair share for the military alliance.

More than half of Republicans believe the U.S. is spending too much on Ukraine, according to a recent poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which found Democrats far more supportive of additional aid.

Shortly after the start of the war, Russia launched a disinformation campaign intended to reduce support for Ukraine. Claims include wild stories about secret US germ warfare labs or Nazi conspiracies, or that Ukrainian refugees committed crimes and took jobs from people who had welcomed them.

That effort continues, but Russia has also turned its attention to issues that have no obvious ties to Moscow and are more likely to cause cracks in the unity of its opponents — for example, immigration or inflation, high-profile topics in the US and Europe.

“They are very smart and understand the right buttons to push,” said Bret Schafer, senior fellow and head of the information manipulation team at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit. “If your ultimate goal is to reduce support for Ukraine, your angle could be about how bad things are at the southern border. Their path to winning this case is to get the US and EU to stop sending weapons and aid to Ukraine.”

A message left with the Russian embassy in Washington was not immediately returned.

The US election could also be a tempting target for other authoritarian countries such as China and Iran, which, like Russia, have shown a willingness to use online propaganda and disinformation to further their goals.

The online landscape has changed dramatically since Russia tried to interfere in the 2016 presidential race won by Trump. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have banned many Russian state accounts and built in new protections to prevent anyone from exploiting their sites. In a recent example, Meta, the owner of Facebook, announced last fall that it had identified and shut down a network of thousands of fake accounts created in China in an apparent attempt to fool American voters.

Other platforms, including X, have taken a different approach, rolling back or even eliminating content moderation and rules intended to stop misinformation. Then there’s TikTok, whose ties to China and popularity among young people have set off alarms in several state capitals and Washington.

Artificial intelligence is another area of ​​concern. Technology now makes it easier than ever to create audio or video that is lifelike enough to fool voters.

Social media is no longer the only battleground. Russia and other disinformation spreaders are increasingly using encrypted messaging sites or websites masquerading as legitimate news outlets.

“A lot of their activity has moved away from the big platforms to places where they can operate more freely,” said John Hultquist, principal analyst at Mandiant Intelligence, a cybersecurity firm that monitors Russian disinformation.

Walter, Logically’s research director, said he’s most concerned about misinformation on X and TikTok this year, given their lack of control and their popularity, especially among young voters. TikTok’s ties to China have raised national security concerns.

He said that while election years highlight the dangers of disinformation, the most effective information operations are launched years in advance. America’s adversaries have spent a long time studying American politics, building online networks and cultivating domestic divisions.

Now comes the payoff.

“They don’t have to put much effort into creating disinformation,” Walter said. “They have already laid the foundation for 2024.”