Assessing Russian Use of Social Media as a Means to Influence U.S. Policy

Alex Buck is a currently serving officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He has deployed twice to Afghanistan, once to Ukraine, and is now working towards an MA in National Security.  Alex can be found on Twitter @RCRbuck.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

Title:  Assessing Russian Use of Social Media as a Means to Influence U.S. Policy

Date Originally Written:  August 29, 2021.

Date Originally Published:  December 13, 2021.

Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that without appropriate action, the United States’ political climate will continue to be exploited by Russian influence campaigns. These campaigns will have broad impacts across the Western world, and potentially generate an increased competitive advantage for Russia.

Summary:  To achieve a competitive advantage over the United States, Russia uses social media-based influence campaigns to influence American foreign policy. Political polarization makes the United States an optimal target for such campaigns. 

Text:  Russia aspires to regain influence over the international system that they once had as the Soviet Union. To achieve this aim, Russia’s interest lies in building a stronger economy and expanding their regional influence over Eastern Europe[1]. Following the Cold War, Russia recognized that these national interests were at risk of being completely destroyed by Western influence. The Russian economy was threatened by the United States’ unipolar hegemony over the global economy[2]. A strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has threatened Russia’s regional influence in Eastern Europe. NATO’s collective security agreement was originally conceived to counter the Soviet threat following World War II and has continued to do so to this day. Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, NATO expanded their membership to include former Soviet states in Eastern Europe. This expansion was done in an effort to reduce Russian regional influence [1]. Russia perceives these actions as a threat to their survival as a state, and needs a method to regain competitive advantage.

Following the Cold War, Russia began to identify opportunities they could exploit to increase their competitive advantage in the international system. One of those opportunities began to develop in the early-2000s as social media emerged. During this time, social media began to impact American culture in such a significant way that it could not be ignored. Social media has two significant impacts on society. First, it causes people to create very dense clusters of social connections. Second, these clusters are populated by very similar types of people[3]. These two factors caused follow-on effects to American society in that they created a divided social structure and an extremely polarized political system. Russia viewed these as opportunities ripe for their exploitation. Russia sees U.S. social media as a cost-effective medium to exert influence on the United States. 

In the late 2000s, Russia began experimenting with their concept of exploiting the cyber domain as a means of exerting influence on other nation-states. After the successful use of cyber operations against Ukraine, Estonia, Georgia and again in Ukraine in 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2014 respectively, Russia was poised to attempt utilizing their concept against the United States and NATO[4]. In 2014, Russia slowly built a network of social media accounts that would eventually begin sowing disinformation amongst American social media users[3]. The significance of the Russian information campaign leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election can not be underestimated. The Russian Internet Research Agency propagated ~10.4 million tweets on Twitter, 76.5 million engagements on Facebook, and 187 million engagements on Instagram[5]. Although within the context of 200 billion tweets sent annually this may seem like a small-scale effort, the targeted nature of the tweets contributed to their effectiveness. This Russian social media campaign was estimated to expose between 110 and 130 million American social media users to misinformation aimed at skewing the results of the presidential election[3]. The 2000 presidential election was decided by 537 votes in the state of Florida. To change the results of an American election like that of 2000, a Russian information campaign could potentially sway electoral results with a campaign that is 0.00049% effective.

The bifurcated nature of the current American political arena has created the perfect target for Russian attacks via the cyber domain. Due to the persistently slim margins of electoral results, Russia will continue to exploit this opportunity until it achieves its national aims and gains a competitive advantage over the United States. Social media’s influence offers Russia a cost effective and highly impactful tool that has the potential to sway American policies in its favor. Without coherent strategies to protect national networks and decrease Russian social influence the United States, and the broader Western world, will continue to be subject to Russian influence. 


[1] Arakelyan, L. A. (2017). Russian Foreign Policy in Eurasia: National Interests and Regional Integration (1st ed.). Routledge.

[2] Blank, S. (2008). Threats to and from Russia: An Assessment. The Journal of Slavic Military Studies, 21(3), 491–526.

[3] Aral, S. (2020). The hype machine: How social media disrupts our elections, our economy, and our health–and how we must adapt (First edition). Currency.

[4] Geers, K. & NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. (2015). Cyber war in perspective: Russian aggression against Ukraine.

[5] DiResta, R., Shaffer, K., Ruppel, B., Sullivan, D., & Matney, R. (2019). The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency. US Senate Documents.

Alex Buck Assessment Papers Cyberspace Influence Operations Russia Social Media United States