CHINA, Russia and Iran are helping to turn Americans against each other as they stoke violence with toxic online campaigns, experts have said.
The warning comes as the divisions in the US were laid bare when furious Donald Trump fans stormed the Capitol – resulting in five deaths, including a cop.
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Theresa Payton, the first female chief intelligence officer at the White House, CEO of Fortalice Solutions, told The US Sun state actors have been fanning the flames of division.
"Nation state backed misinformation is dangerous. It is the carbon monoxide poisoning of our social discourse," she warned.
"It's silent and deadly to how we listen and treat each other."
America's rivals have already celebrated the horrific scenes at the Capitol, with Chinese state media mocking "frail" US democracy, Russian lawmakers gloating, and Iran's supreme leader calling the riot "God's revenge".
FBI officials are also now probing whether foreign powers may have had a role in the chaos at the Capitol as more than $500,000 in bitcoin payments was sent to figures on the far-right.
Infamous conspiracy theory QAnon, which is believed to have helped fuel the Capitol riot, is known to have been pushed by Russian trolls on Twitter.
Iran meanwhile is known to have posed as the Proud Boys and sent threatening emails to Democrats, trying to again spread division.
Facebook also took down a Chinese disinformation operation in November which tried to influence both sides.
Ms Payton, author of Manipulated: Inside the Cyberwar to Hijack Elections and Distort the Truth, told The US Sun: "You don't often know you are a victim of misinformation until it's too late.
"Many people when confronted with the truth can't trust and be open to it.
"We saw in the case of what happened on Capitol Hill that it tragically resulted in deaths."
The hacking of our minds is a real and present danger to democracy.
Dr Tim Stevens, the head of the Cyber Security Research Group at King's College London, also told The US Sun the information space is becoming "toxic" by this rhetoric being amplified by China, Russia and Iran.
"It's clearly a strategic objective of all three of those countries to make life difficult for the US and its Western allies as possible in the information space," he said.
There is not yet evidence of foreign state-backed misinformation directly leading to the Capitol siege.
However, Ms Payton said foreign nations have already been "caught in the act" stoking violence while posing as Americans.
It comes as the US remains bitterly divided even with Joe Biden's inauguration tomorrow.
How the US’s rivals reacted to the Capitol siege
VIOLENT scenes at the US Capitol received widespread condemnation – but some of America’s rivals decided to celebrate.
Chinese state media celebrated the scenes as a "beautiful sight to behold" – mocking the US over its support of protests in Hong Kong.
Words such as "Karma," "retribution" and "deserving" were also often mentioned in comments and posts on Chinese social media Weibo.
China's Communist Youth League – the youth movement run by the Chinese Communist Party – described the violent unrest as a "beautiful sight" and a "world masterpiece".
Russian politicians also used the riots to slam the US's "archaic" electoral system and claimed the American media were to blame.
Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s Federation Council, added: "The celebration of democracy is over."
Russia's foreign ministry also used the opportunity to claims the US election did not meet "modern democratic standards" as state media coverage pushed Trump's baseless claims of fraud.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei used the riot to ridicule the US and their "American values".
He said the violence was "God's Revenge" for US interventions in the Middle East, and gloated about the "election fiasco".
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani also said the Capitol riots showed US democracy was "very fragile and "vulnerable".
Security services are well aware of the efforts to influence Americans' hearts and minds – but the online campaigns prove difficult to police.
Reuters reported suspected state-backed Russian accounts had been spreading QAnon conspiracy theories ahead of the US election.
Meanwhile, US federal officials accused the Iranians of stealing voter data in Florida and Alaska.
They then emailed liberals while posing as the Proud Boys: "You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you".
The Office of the DNI also released a statement last year proclaiming Russia, Iran and China were all seeking to influence the election.
And the Communist Party's cyber operation is known to have also spread falsehoods surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Payton told The US Sun: "The hacking of our minds is a real and present danger to democracy.
"The violence that occurred on the Hill may not be the end and the poking and prodding of Trump supporters dates prior to the election."
Ms Payton went on: "The end game is to make sure we don't trust traditional news media and to create a fog of misinformation war so that we don't know what to believe.
"When they succeed, even if only temporarily or specifically on an issue, this leaves us open to believing anything."
'UNDERMINE THE US'
Dr Stevens told The US Sun: "These states want to undermine the moral authority of the United States to demonstrate to their domestic populations that democracy doesn’t work.
"Sowing these forms of discord, they can try to district while they are promoting their own strategic goals."
The expert said its likely Iran, China and Russia have a "permanent" taskforce designed to churn out lies and falsehoods to try to influence people in the West.
And he explained for the most part we are in an "impossible" position in countering the misinformation, as Western states do not be seen to be censoring free speech.
Dr Stevens described tools such as banning and blocking as "crude", and which may only inflame things further – such as the backlash over the de-platforming of Trump.
The current debate of this type of activity online is the natural follow-up from how the West had to terrorist materials online, Dr Stevens explained.
He added: "The most sensible thing at the moment is to not shy away from the very real and corrosive effects of this misinformation and disinformation – but also not to deliberately escalate it."
Dr Stevens told the US Sun however that Western powers also have to share the blame, as they have also allowed misinformation to spread.
"It is pretty toxic and various state actors are not helping the divisions," he said.
"What makes this tricky for the West to deal with is not just the volume of it and the incredulity of those its targeted at, but also how our own leaderships deal in these things as well.
"The well is being poisoned both abroad and at home."
Ms Payton called for the international community to set up an organisation run by the UN, NATO or the World Economic Forum to help analyse misinformation and hold Big Tech companies to account for allowing it to spread online.
She told the US Sun: "This path will not be easy and will require a lot of discussion, transparency, and published frameworks so the governance process is transparent and fair."
Hannah Bailey, from the Oxford Internet Institute, who recently published a report on online misinformation campaigns, told The US Sun: "Over the past year we find that almost $10 million has still been spent on political advertisements by global cyber troop campaigns, and this is likely a low-ball figure.
"We note that computational propaganda campaigns have become a structurally embedded part of social media platform services, the removal of which will require more concerted efforts by social media platforms’."
FBI officials have warned there could be further violence in coming days with various reports of armed protests springing up across the US.
Troops have been deployed in unprecedented numbers to Washington DC as barriers have been erected around the Capitol and White House.
Democrats meanwhile press on with their efforts to impeach Trump for inciting insurrection even after he leaves office, a move which Republicans have slammed as cynical and political.
The clash has become the latest chapter of division, despite soon-to-be President Biden's pleas for healing and unity amid the Covid pandemic.
Misinformation about the event is already spreading, with some even falsely claiming it was a staged event by "Antifa" or a massive "false flag" operation.
QAnon – the baseless online theory that Trump has been fighting a Satantic cabal of pedophiles – is believed to have played a key part in the insurrection, with one of the most high profile rioters known as "QAnon Shaman".
The deluded conspiracy theorists have already seized on Trump's video message calling for peace as a way to try and insight more violence.
Chilling details continue to emerge about the Capitol riot which suggest it may have been much more carefully planned than it appeared as the FBI fear it was an "inside job".
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