Second, with so much attention focused on Russian activities in the 2016 general election battle between President Trump and Hillary Clinton, it’s easy to overlook the Kremlin’s interference in the GOP primary. Yet the Kremlin’s use of social media and other intelligence activities threatened to damage the modern Republican Party from within by driving popular sentiment toward the alt-right (read: white nationalist) fringe. Former FBI special agent Clint Watts told Just Security that the Russian information operation involved an earlier starting point than many assume. Watts said:
What many people miss is that a first principle of effective information wars is to win over the audience first. The Russians developed an alt-right audience in the United States, including testing how they would respond to different messages, well before the primaries began. The Russians were then ready for whichever candidate suited them.
That was the social media prong of the Russian efforts. As far as covert cyber operations were concerned, NBC reported that Russian efforts to steal emails and other data got underway in 2015 and included “top Republicans and staffers for Republican candidates for president.”