When it comes to discussing the Russian challenge to democracy, a lot of vague technical jargon like active measures, asymmetrical information warfare, and social botnets, get thrown around. But if we look at what’s actually happening, we’ll find a tried and true KGB tactic used much more efficiently with social media.
Those in charge of propaganda efforts create conspiracy theories, find disaffected groups that will gladly accept them, then help amplify what they just learned by circling back around and citing their retellings of these conspiracies.
Those interested in counter-intelligence operations often cite 1983’s Operation Infektion as a textbook example of this echo chamber method at work. Its goal was to capitalize on the discovery of AIDS and its explosion into a global pandemic by convincing millions that it was an American bio-weapon.
The same exact tactics are used to this day by Russian intelligence agencies. The only difference is the inclusion of technology into their toolkit to speed up dissemination. That’s how an idle tweet by a seeming nobody can end up being front page news in a few days.
Now, it’s important to make a distinction between Russian propaganda and fake news. While the two might overlap, the latter isn’t necessarily part of a misinformation campaign. Some of it is done for fun and profit from ad revenue.
In fact, one Macedonian town actually had a massive economic boom thanks to far right social media accounts promoting fabricated stories and conservative clickbait. Other fake stories came from viral tweets by people who genuinely didn’t mean to jump to toxic conclusions and regretted it, and clickbaity partisan propaganda also played a significant role.
But there absolutely were shady manufactured stories directly attributable to Russian agents spread on conspiracy theorists’ favorite channels, and splashing into the mainstream after gaining critical mass online.
One of the best examples of this may be Pizzagate, which was started by random Twitter accounts which scanned WikiLeaks dumps attributed to Russian hacks, supercharged on 4Chan,and heavily fanned by bots. It was picked up by conspiracy outlets like InfoWars, and eventually made its way into major newspapers and prime time TV as Michael Flynn’s son tweeted about it, resulting in an eclectic pizzeria being flooded with death threats.
This doesn’t mean that everyone who supported this story was in bed with Russians. In fact a whole lot of people were convinced that this was terrifying truth dying to get out.
And that’s the genius of Putin’s propaganda corps. They know how to tailor their message to create viral conspiracy theories and the technical firepower to get enough eyeballs on it to convert true believers. They also scour the web for existing ones that play into their narrative perfectly.
And the Kremlin comes with backup. Try to challenge them and an army of professional trolls, known for years to be experts in the manufacturing and spread of kompromat and conspiracies, shows up en masse to defend the stories they planted and keep spreading them ever farther. They show up in every place categorized in social media to varying degrees and experiment until they start to fit in and gain followers. These trolls use their reputation to push narratives as anodyne as “look, Russians are good guys for peace and stability” to the opposite extreme of “Hillary had people murdered.”
In 2016, Russian troll farms went even farther. Buying ads on Facebook and commanding at least a significant portion of the botnets that accounted for almost a fifth of all political tweets sent during the election, they essentially used the same exact tactics any PR or marketing shop would use to advertise a new product or a TV show.
By carpet-bombing mass media until it’s impossible to avoid what they’re pitching, they start real conversations among real people, and then feed on that attention to amplify their message even more. The only difference is that they were selling anger and frustration instead of something like a new smartphone.
And it worked. Roiled by the economic turmoil of globalization and looking for scapegoats, conservative social media users who formed Trump’s base often fit the ideal profile of avid conspiracy theorists. They were threatened by rapid change and felt powerless to stop it on their own, looking for an external enemy to blame.
This is in part why they flocked to Trump. Years of pundits telling them that the nation was collapsing, that they were the only true Americans left, and anyone who looked or thought differently wasn’t also a fellow citizen but an existential threat, set them up perfectly for the storm of propaganda unleashed their way.
Ultimately, their stories are often picked up by sites like InfoWars, Global Research, and Before It’s News where they’re cited as facts in some overarching conspiracy that will hopefully make it in some toned down form to Breitbart or Newsbusters. From there, these stories can explode into the conservative media sphere where these sites tend to dominate the conversation and back each other up, along with encouragement from the conspiracy theorists who helped fan the flames.
This is when Russian state-ran RT and Sputnik can jump in, pick up the chatter, and pretend that they’re reporting a story someone else broke in the West, lighting up our prime time news channels and sanitized Twitter feeds with conspiracies and rumors they created and, for the lack of a better term, laundered through our social media. This helps keep the story alive and going on conservative sites, especially Brietbart, which dominates social media on the right, and often fuel its “globalist elitists and grifters vs. hard-working, honest folks with good, old fashioned values” narratives.
Clint Watts, an expert in Russian cyber campaigns, testified before the Senate that armies of Twitter bots are steering President Trump to stories that come from RT, Sputnik, InfoWars, and Breitbart, trying their hardest to float them to his timeline when they know he’s on social media. If, as liberal conspiracies claim, Trump is taking marching orders from Putin, willingly or not, why deploy these active measures to change his opinion, especially one you’re supposedly dictating to him? And why would his aides manage his alarmingly unhealthy media diet often seeded with hoaxes and Russian propaganda?
But that’s not the only trick Russians have from the KGB’s disinformational heyday. There’s also the art of creating the right compromising materials, or kompromat. Sex tapes are a classic, as are pictures that framed the right way support a false narrative.
However, in recent years, Putin has acquired a new tool for giving his opponents massive headaches, a tool called WikiLeaks. It may have taken a while to fully spin up, but over the last year it’s paid enormous dividends for his campaigns along with his frontline hacking groups: Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear.
After expending itself with the leaks provided by Chelsea Manning, WikiLeaks was going through some rough times. Julian Assange alienated many of his closest friends and co-workers, and journalists described him as paranoid. After taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he still remains, it seemed like Assange had no allies left.
Suddenly, however, he announced his own show on RT in which he interviewed anti-American guests that fanned the same conspiracy theories Russians wanted to spread about the Arab Spring, the expansion of the EU, anti-corruption protests in Moscow, and NATO.
Meanwhile, leaks about the Russian elite’s secret, frequently ill-gotten fortunes never seemed to end up on WikiLeaks despite Assange threatening to leak them, often falling to other hackers to expose, or to whistleblowers like lawyer and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. (In fact some of Navalny’s work is referenced in this series.)
During and after the election, Assange towed Russia’s line precisely, interviewing former spy Ana Chapman on his show, encouraging her as she lavished praise on Trump and said that Clinton “had blood on her hands.” And of course, there were the e-mail dumps containing the seeds of many of Clinton’s scandals.
After Trump’s election, in which it fed the conservative media sphere, WikiLeaks started to become even more belligerent and antagonistic. It created a “truth squad” to roam social media and “correct” journalists they thought were unfair. It leaked the CIA’s cyber warfare toolkit, leading to a strong rebuke of the Trump administration, which used to quote its e-mail dumps on a regular basis.
It also readily piled on to the 4Chan-coordinated anti-Macron social media campaign, releasing an 11th hour dump of his e-mails when his campaign was unable to respond under French law, a dump furiously promoted by armies of Twitter bots and populist Twitter personalities who blasted “the biased leftist media” while literally campaigning for Trump.
Luckily for Macron, his campaign was wise to the trick and might have left some bits of fake information to put the dump’s authenticity into question. WikiLeaks eventually had to backtrack after Russian metadata was found among supposedly French files.
Still, right now, WikiLeaks is Putin’s digital bulldozer. It seems ready to hack anyone who stands in its way and ensures its survival with a doomsday file allegedly containing the kind of material that could start World War 3 according to the internet.
WikiLeaks also might have strange links to the UK’s Leave campaign as evidenced by ex-UKIP mouthpiece and Brexit cheerleader Nigel Farage visiting Assange in person at the Ecuadorian embassy and telling curious reporters that he forgot why he was there for an hour, or what he talked about with WikiLeaks’ boss. Either Farage has a serious problem with short-term memory, or he really didn’t want to discuss the investigation into his relationship with big data tycoon and Breitbart financier Robert Mercer, or the leaked e-mails in which UKIP pledged to defend him from any legal threat. This, by the way, is the same Breitbart that has pushed for a Trump presidency since he announced his run to confused guffaws from the media.
In recent days, Mercer is so fed up with investigations into his links to the Brexit vote, Trump, Breitbart, and WikiLeaks that he threatened to sue The Guardian, likely trying to take advantage of notoriously lopsided British libel laws.
He’s not the only possible financial and media muscle being mentioned either. Farage’s frequent appearances on RT stirred rumors of a Russian hand tipping the scale in favor of Leave voters while simultaneously funding Le Pen’s National Front, another virulently anti-EU party. Keep in mind that this was the same election WikiLeaks and 4Chan tried to sway at the last possible minute when the polls predicted a more than 20 point victory for Macron in the run-off.
And that attempt to sway the French election seems to indicate that after Trump won, someone marshaling the Russian disinformation machine was pretty sure they could sway elections with strategic data dumps and social media campaigns were propaganda was signal boosted by bots. But we’re getting head of ourselves. First we need to answer the question of what really happened in the American election…