Beyond the Ballot – How the Kremlin Works to Undermine the U.S. Justice System

Suzanne Spaulding, Devi Nair, and Arthur Nelson, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Read the report here.

The U.S. justice system is under attack as part of a long-term Russian effort to undermine the appeal of democracy and weaken the West. Via multi-platform disinformation operations, Kremlin-backed operatives work to exacerbate existent divisions within populations and increase overall mistrust and paranoia against democratic institutions. In the process, justice systems are portrayed as corrupt, inept, and hypocritical.

This report describes the nature of this threat and proposes measures for countering it.  The report focuses on activities by the Russian government, including the ways it feeds, is fed by, and amplifies domestic voices to weaken public confidence in the justice system.  The insights gained by examining Russia’s efforts can and should inform our understanding of both threats from other nations and the challenges contemporary communications technologies pose to a healthy democracy generally.

The Propaganda Channels
In accordance with its New Generation Warfare, Russia uses a combination of propaganda channels to maximize the effectiveness of their disinformation campaigns. Each channel serves a slightly different, but complimentary, purpose. In this report, we focus on how state-sponsored media and social media platforms have been used to opportunistically fuel discontent within democratic populations.

Our team studied Russian state-sponsored programming on RT and Sputnik, and data from social media platforms, to better capture how these channels promote messaging to erode confidence in institutions of justice. Further, we explored the ways in which the Russians are capitalizing on already-present divides in society and just turning up the volume of resentment.

While there is a sense of general resentment featured in Russian propaganda, the disinformation campaigns rely on frames to level more direct attacks on the justice system. Framing theory refers to the packaging and presentation of ideas and suggests that the way ideas are presented determines how that information is processed and acted upon. Russia has developed four frames that are particularly damaging to the justice system. Each frame reinforces the overarching message that the U.S. justice system is not independent or impartial. Instead, the Kremlin’s disinformation asserts:

▪ The justice system tolerates, protects, and covers up crimes committed by immigrants
▪ The justice system operationalizes the institutionally racist and corrupt police state
▪ The justice system directly supports and enables corporate corruption
▪ The justice system is a tool of the political elite

The last frame is the most prevalent. It reinforces the idea that democracy is run by the societal elites, and the justice system is a pawn used to justify the government’s corrupt dealings. Recently, this frame was used to undermine Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. The courts hold the power to shine a light on Russia’s corrupt dealings, which in turn will create a world that is more aware of and less susceptible to Russia’s influence operations. It’s not surprising, then, that Russian President Vladimir Putin worked to undermine the justice system to pre-emptively cast doubt on the Mueller investigation and similar investigations conducted in the future.  

This report focuses on Russia, but other states—and domestic actors—are adopting similar tactics. Further, even though these exploits are greatly aggravated by advancements in technology, that does not necessarily mean that the solutions must be uniquely technological.

Given the ever-advancing nature of threats in this space, it is important to consider broader countermeasures that make democracy more resilient to these sorts of attacks in the future.

The February 2018 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, Countering Adversary Threats to Democratic Institutions, called for a whole-of-nation strategy to prevent, deter, and reduce the effectiveness of democracy-undermining activities. The contributing experts agreed the strategy should address the following imperatives:
1. Publicize the extent of adversary interference and increase public awareness
2. Promote bipartisan action, increase technical defenses, and increase the cost of disruptive activities
3. Improve transparency into foreign adversary interference
4. Research the extent to which specific adversary techniques influence public opinion and target mitigation approaches accordingly
5. Engage in a national effort to promote U.S. understanding of the importance of democracy and democratic institutions

The whole-of-nation strategy is still needed, and it needs to include a significant international component as well. But the threat to the justice system requires additional, institition-specific attention. In keeping with the five imperatives, the following recommendations broadly highlight preliminary actions that must be taken to safeguard institutions
of justice:

▪ Raise threat awareness and invest in impact-oriented research to understand the full scope of disinformation operations aimed at the justice system;  
▪ Improve rapid response capabilities and communication capabilities between institutions like the justice system, appropriate federal entities, and social media platforms; and ▪ Expand civics and media literacy training, elevating these efforts as a national security imperative for the sake of building societal resilience.

Russia’s attacks on the justice system provide strong evidence that disinformation operations go well beyond elections, are adapting, touch all parts of society, and show no signs of abating. Russia has signaled its intention to continue undermining democratic institutions like the justice system. We must commit to a coordinated, whole-of-nation response to this national security threat.