Updated: Jan 22, 2021
News coverage of the Russian/American dance of political intrigue, including hacking, internet trolling, and propaganda has been mostly myopic. The braided conversation is currently filled with everything that makes our modern news environment toxic. Conflicting groups mingle twisted psychology with international espionage deceptions into a maelstrom of fiction.
Many Democrats have used Russia as a scapegoat for their political repudiation at the polls, in complete denial of their failures. For those whose memories extend beyond four years, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party peddled a similar narrative about United States’ alleged interference with Russian elections in 2011. Meanwhile, many Republicans have denied Russian involvement, cynically asserting that Russian hacking is just a fabrication to stain the legitimacy of Trump and his rightwing appointees.
Conspiracy theories abound. Here are some of the most fanciful:
Obama sabotaged Hillary Clinton for his own personal gain
Our own intelligence agencies carried out the hacks
Where are the professional, nuanced, and honest presentations of facts and context?
This saga of global intrigue requires uncommon knowledge of espionage, politics, public relations, and ideology. It spans complex ongoing events since 2011. In this series, we will discuss:
The first volley during the Russian election of 2011
The Russian disinformation response via The Trolls of Olgino
The failed United States countermeasure in John Kerry’s scrapped Counter-Disinformation Team
The evolving Russian disinformation objectives
The alleged Russian hacking of US political parties
What impact, if any, Russian activities had on the election outcome, and whether they achieved their intelligence objectives (two separate concerns)
We will close with some practical advice on confronting internet trolls of all sorts, and how America should respond to disinformation in general, whether it comes from a particular foreign intelligence program, useful idiots, or domestic institutions.
Citizen Confirmation Bias
To be clear, all intelligence operations are conspiracies, but armchair activists who have never so much as read a single textbook on intelligence, are always way out of their league when they speculate about espionage events. Successful deception relies upon telling the asset or target what they want to hear; nearly every bogus narrative and distortion of these complex events can be reduced to confirmation bias.
Democrats do not want to believe the voters rejected their offerings in 2016. Republicans do not want to believe that Trump benefited from foreign hostilities. If the prevailing fears are of Obama, Israel, or the US intelligence community, then they must be the conspirators. In the absence of certainty, mobs of jokers are chanting, “hubba, hubba, hubba, who do ya trust?”
The least psychologically rewarding conspirator is Russia. Very few Americans are satisfied by thinking that their elections are vulnerable to foreign meddling, and in 2016, America is weary of foreign entanglement. A new major foreign conflict does not reduce the cost of healthcare, college, and taxes, nor does it increase job opportunities and returns on investments. Americans are much more apt to indict corruption in their own government than to admit a foreign government has the power to trounce the American government in a significant way.
Unfortunately for Citizen Confirmation Bias, who relishes shoving his fingers in his ears as he swallows the banal narrative that suits his ego most favorably, getting the story right is his only cure. Misdirected hostility against fellow Americans, and the whitewashing of foreign hostilities can lead to diplomatic and security nightmares – at worst, economic turmoil and proxy wars. We must review the major players, their interests, evidence, and implications to understand these critical events.
The 2011 Russian Election Fraud
The story begins in 2011 when Russian election monitors reported pervasive fraud – suggesting that Vladimir Putin’s United Russia was saved by cheating. Russian opposition websites were hacked. Russia’s Interior Ministry pursued three criminal cases, and cited hundreds of electoral breaches. Massive protests ensued. If Americans thought that their election of 2016 was a Barnum & Bailey Circus, then the Russian election of 2011 was an international tour of Cirque du Soleil.
From her US State Department officialdom, Hillary Clinton twisted the knife protruding from United Russia’s belly, calling for investigations into Russian election fraud and the Putin Administration’s intimidation. She characterized the Russian election as “neither free nor fair.” Putin and Medvedev reacted to the allegations with denial, despite dozens-of-thousands of Russian protestors and official indictments by the Russian government itself.
Medvedev said, “I consider such statements absolutely irresponsible, deceitful, and even provocative.” Putin blamed the protests on Hillary Clinton’s “signal,” as he derided his Russian protestors – calling their white ribbons “condoms” and accusing them of being paid agents of the West.
This event is significant because it formed the motivation for the latest volley of Information Operations/Information Warfare (IO/IW) between the United States and Russia. Russian internal corruption, in which Putin’s government perpetrated intimidation, fraud, and cheating, while political parties jostled and hacked each other, was simply called out by Hillary Clinton from an official capacity. America became an easy target for Putin’s Administration when they accused Hillary Clinton of “deceit and provocation,” and their domestic opponents of being paid Western agents. Putin’s political entourage had secured their scapegoats for civil unrest in the wake of their contaminated democratic proceedings.
So not only did democrat Hillary Clinton give Putin his Western scapegoat with her meddling, she also gave Russia the motivation for retaliation in her 2016 campaign. The democrat slogan should be: "Saviors of the world! Globally minded, universally dilettante."
The 2013 Trolls from Olgino
It wasn’t long before Vladimir Putin’s first deputy, Vyacheslav Volodin, created a troll farm named the Internet Research Agency Ltd., also known as The Trolls from Olgino. In the summer of 2013, it was time for Putin and his cohorts to retaliate against “Atlanticism,” of which, the United States is the purported head in Russian ideological parlance.
Hundreds of paid trolls made blog posts, comments, infographics, and viral videos on behalf of Russian interests. But these influence agents are not just out to spread pro-Russian propaganda. Their main goal is to perpetrate campaigns of hate, disinformation, and harassment. Investigative Journalist Adrian Chen said, “They seek to overwhelm social media with a flood of fake content, seeding doubt and paranoia, and destroying the possibility of using the internet as a democratic space.” He added a disclosure from Leonid Volkov, “The point is to spoil it, to create the atmosphere of hate, to make it so stinky that normal people won’t want to touch it.” In other words, Russian intelligence wants us to be looking at kitty cat memes instead of evidence-based articles like this.
Western investigative journalists claimed that the Russian trolls were ideologically blind. Sometimes they would promote American racial tensions with Black Lives Matter or La Raza narratives, and class warfare with Occupy Wall Street narratives. Other times, the trolls would incite ideological division in the USA by jumping onto dirty American political battles with election disinformation and hacking disclosures. As we will discover by the end of this piece, the Russian paid trolls are not ideologically blind. Western observers simply do not tend to read the ideological doctrines disseminated to Russian leaders through their training and education, and they try to force-fit Russian ideology into their own Western political categories.
Continued in part 2.