WASHINGTON – The Russian government has stepped up efforts to inflame racial tensions in the United States as part of its bid to influence November's presidential election, including trying to incite violence by white supremacist groups and to stoke anger among blacks, according to seven U.S. officials briefed on recent intelligence.
Russia's lead intelligence agency, the S.V.R., has apparently gone beyond 2016 methods, when operatives tried to stoke racial animosity by creating fake Black Lives Matter groups and spreading disinformation to depress black voter turnout. Now, Russia is also trying to influence white supremacist groups, the officials said; they gave few details, but one official said federal investigators are examining how at least one neo-Nazi organization with ties to Russia is funded.
Other Russian efforts, which U.S. intelligence agencies have tracked, involve simply prodding white nationalists to more aggressively spread hate messages. Russian operatives are also trying to push black extremist groups toward violence, according to multiple officials.
Russia's more public influence operations, like state-backed news organizations, have continued to push divisive racial narratives, including stories emphasizing allegations of police abuse in the U.S. and highlighting racism against blacks within the military.
And as social media companies more vigilantly monitor foreign activity than they did in 2016, Russia has also adjusted its methods to evade detection. Rather than disseminate messages as widely as possible, as in 2016, Russian operatives are using private Facebook groups, posts on the online message board 4chan and closed chat rooms that are more difficult to monitor, according to intelligence officials.
Russia's primary goal, according to several officials briefed on the intelligence who spoke on condition of anonymity, is to foster a sense of chaos in the United States, though its motivations are under debate and difficult to decipher in the absence of high-level intelligence sources inside Moscow.
The direct effect of its interference on presidential politics is less clear, though some U.S. officials said that Russia believed that acts of violence could bolster President Donald Trump's re-election bid if he could argue that a response to such an episode demanded continuity and that he represented a law-and-order approach.
The FBI and other intelligence agencies declined to comment on specific Russian activities.
"We see Russia is willing to conduct more brazen and disruptive influence operations because of how it perceives its conflict with the West," David Porter, a top agent on the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force, said last month at an election security conference in Washington.
He added, "To put it simply, in this space, Russia wants to watch us tear ourselves apart."
Because Russia is trying to amplify the messaging of existing groups, its interference is difficult for U.S. officials to combat given First Amendment protections for speech. The government does have the legal authority to stop hate speech that explicitly advocates violence, and social media companies continue to take down accounts linked to Russian intelligence or disinformation groups.