How the Russian Influence Operation on Twitter Weaponized Military Narratives




influence operations, Russia, cyber warfare, Military, narrative, veterans, social media, Twitter, information warfare


Since 2016, Russia has engaged in a dedicated influence operation against the United States to exacerbate existing cleavages in American society and to undermine US national security. Although distinctly modern in its use of social media platforms, the current methods align with old Soviet doctrine using information warfare to gain a strategic edge over competitors. We examine Russia’s use of military-related content and profiles in their influence operation on Twitter and, in particular, the strategic deployment of military narratives. Using data from Twitter’s comprehensive data archive of state-backed information operations, we find that 12.14% of the 1,408,712 tweets in English from 2009 through February 2021 contain military-related content. In addition, of the 2,370 fake accounts on Twitter tied to the IRA and GRU, 148 were from accounts posing as military or military-adjacent, and these accounts posted 12.7% of the influence operation’s tweets. Together, tweets containing military-related content or coming from fake military and military-adjacent profiles account for 22.6% of the tweets identified as part of the Russian influence operation on Twitter. The Russians used narratives related to veterans, particularly sacrifice narratives and post-Vietnam government betrayal of sacrifice narratives. Patriotic sacrifice narratives were used to gather and engage an audience and to legitimize and amplify the content and accounts. In contrast, betrayal of sacrifice narratives were weaponized to amplify and escalate divisive social issues by tying them to veterans’ sacrifices. We conclude the Russians amplified existing military narratives in American culture and used fake American military profiles to wrap anti-government sentiment in patriotic trappings to exacerbate existing social divisions. Turning Americans against their government achieves Russian strategic goals of removing American influence abroad and allowing Russia to have greater impact on the levers of international power that serve Russian interests.

Author Biography

Dana Weinberg, Queens College-CUNY

Dana Beth Weinberg, PhD, is a Professor of Sociology and Data Analytic at Queens College-CUNY. She currently studies influence operations and the ways they leverage and weaponize narratives. She is the Director of the New War Research Consortium, a civil-military collaboration combining academic insights and practical solutions for national security policy.