The Russians (and Other Online Outlaws) Are Coming

A study just published in Strategic Studies Quarterly outlining how Russian social media trolls and bots targeted the University of Missouri and spread false information intended to create chaos and divide the campus, state and nation hits close to home for me.

The findings explain, in part, why November 2015 was the most difficult month in my 20-year career in higher education. I was vice chancellor for marketing and communications at the University of Missouri. Concerned Student 1950, an African-American student group, had issued a list of demands to the university administration related to campus climate issues. One member of the group announced a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until the university system president, Timothy Wolfe, resigned. Many deans at the flagship campus were lobbying the Board of Curators to force Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to step down. Then the football team issued a statement of support for Concerned Student 1950.

A team of faculty members, administrators and students were developing a list of solutions that Mizzou would begin implementing to improve campus climate (a platform later adopted by the university system), but that plan had not yet been approved for broad communication to the campus community. Rumors were flying on social media, and our communications team was working around the clock. Their close partners in the university police department were doing everything they could to address rumors and communicate accurate information as quickly as possible.

What we didn’t know until well into the crisis was that we were the target of deliberate manipulation. Looking back from 2018, it may be unsurprising that fake social media accounts and bots initiated in Russia would be used to target a trending crisis at a flagship university in the middle of the United States. At the time, the idea would have sounded like a conspiracy theory from late-night talk radio.

That’s not to say that we were naïve. We knew that we were the target of some discussion on boards associated with the dark web and that some fake social accounts were claiming to be Mizzou students. They posted inflammatory claims about what was happening on campus, which were quickly shared by students, faculty members, parents and people in the community, so we began asking our constituents not to share unconfirmed reports.

But while we knew there were some bad actors, we were unaware of the scope, extent and source of the misinformation campaign intended to create fear, panic and discord. Reports of pickup trucks with Confederate flags, police marching with KKK members and other inflammatory incidents were amplified by terrified community members, but our police department wasn’t able to verify them with eyewitness accounts. As campus communicators, we could say that we couldn’t confirm that these things happened, but with multiple audiences with widely variable points of view, absence of evidence wasn’t evidence of absence.

Anonymous social media platforms, particularly Yik Yak, complicated matters. A threat of violence against African-American students, reported to the university police department, prompted a rapid and full-scale investigation. With the cooperation of Yik Yak, the police quickly located the individual responsible. The following morning, I found myself calling my counterpart to give that campus leadership team notice that one of their students was being arrested before it hit the media. This chain of events underscored that we had to take every rumor seriously.

As a communicator, I believe in evaluating crisis response after the fact, but I also try hard not to second-guess crisis communications decisions. It is easy to critique your actions in retrospect because you can’t remember what you knew when and lose your perspective on the experience of operating in a highly charged environment. In other words, decisions are made prospectively, but critique is retrospective. Today, when there is a broad investigation of potential Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election and fake news is on everyone’s mind, it seems perfectly credible that Mizzou was a target in 2015. But at the time, nobody would have believed us if the official university statements blamed fake Russian social media accounts and internet bots for ramping up fear and discord on our campus.

Lieutenant Colonel Jarred Prier, the author of the study, is correct that anyone who was looking knew that there were outside actors capitalizing on a crisis to sow fear and chaos. We knew that there were fake accounts out there, but communicating any specifics to a broader audience was not a strategy that would have contributed to building trust. Students, citizens and legislators who wanted to hold the university accountable for combating racism and ensuring student safety would have said we were passing the buck.

My former colleague and director of the news bureau at Mizzou, Christian Basi, is right when he saysestablishing and publicizing the trusted sources of information and moving quickly are more important now than ever. In practice, this can be incredibly difficult when trust has broken down, and given the time it takes to verify facts in fast-moving and highly variable situations. I would add that we need to be in close contact with experts studying the online misinformation trends, and with law enforcement who work to combat these kinds of online threats.

I wish I had known in November 2015 what we have since learned about the extent to which our perceptions can be shaped by fake content created by outside actors and the tactics they use to manipulate public perception. What I can do now is continually educate myself and the leaders with whom I work about these tactics and their potential consequences. Those of us on campuses should familiarize ourselves with the tactics that purveyors of fake news use, check Google’s image search to find out where images are coming from — often a quick tell for fake content — and continually remind our constituents where they can go to get help and what resources our campuses offers in a crisis.

Colleges and universities must learn all we can about the nature and extent of this threat to our mission, campus safety and reputation. Simply put, higher education and local law enforcement currently do not have the resources or trained personnel to detect fake content campaigns. Many institutions still do not have a full-time staff member monitoring and managing social media. In addition to working with local, state and national authorities when universities are targeted by outside groups, higher education leaders must make combating this phenomenon a strategic priority and attempt to address it in a coordinated way through our advocacy organizations and professional associations. Without a coordinated effort, it is likely that outside actors will continue to exact a heavy toll on our campuses during any kind of crisis.