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US cyber warriors blocked Russian trolls’ web access during the 2018 midterms

February 26, 2019

American military hackers targeted the Saint Petersburg–based Internet Research Agency (IRA), which is notorious for spewing out fake news aimed at influencing foreign polls.

The news: According to a report in the Washington Post, US Cyber Command blocked the IRA’s internet access on the day of the midterm polls in November 2018, and for a few days after it. The agency, which has close ties to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had staged an aggressive propaganda campaign ahead of the 2016 US presidential election and was one of three Russian outfits indicted in early 2018 by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller for interfering in that contest.
 
The background: Last year, America’s cyber army was given a more expansive mandate to strike back against all kinds of threats facing the country. Knocking the IRA offline temporarily was the first example of a more robust riposte to online propaganda operations in the US mounted by foreign organizations. In a related move, Cyber Command troops sent e-mails and text messages to trolls, and to hackers working for the Russian government, to show it knew their real identities.
 
Cyber tit-for-tat: It’s unlikely that naming and shaming foreign trolls and hackers is going to change very much. Nor will issuing indictments against them. One cyber expert, Thomas Rid of Johns Hopkins University, told the Post that denying the IRA web access was “a pinprick” and wouldn’t deter it in the long run.
 
Rid’s right, but it does send a clear signal that America is now willing to target foreign propaganda mills, and that it sees deterring electoral interference as partly a military responsibility. The real risk is that this could eventually lead to an escalation of cyber hostilities on both sides. So other channels, including diplomatic ones, shouldn’t take a back seat.

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