Covert Networks: A Comparative Study of Intelligence Techniques Used By Foreign Intelligence Agencies to Weaponize Social Media
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From the Bolshevik Revolution to the Brexit Vote, the covert world of intelligence has attempted to influence global events with varying degrees of success. In 2016, one of the most brazen manifestations of Russian intelligence operations was directed against millions of Americans when they voted to elect a new president. Although this was not the first time that Russia attempted to influence an American presidential election, it was undoubtedly the largest attempt in terms of its scope and the most publicized to date. Although much discussion has followed the 2016 election, there have not been much concerted historical analysis which situates the events of 2016 within the global timeline of foreign intelligence collection. This paper argues that the onset of social media has altered intelligence collection in terms of its form, but not in terms of its essence. Using the case study method, this paper illustrates how three different nations apply classical intelligence techniques to the modern environment of social media. This paper examines how China has utilized classical agent recruitment techniques through sites like LinkedIn, how Iran has used classical honey trap techniques through a combination of social media sites, and how Russia has employed the classical tactics of kompromat, forgery, agents of influence and front groups in its modern covert influence campaigns. This paper’s case study analysis highlights the importance of bringing historical perspectives into the current discussion of digital intelligence operations.