Updated: Jan 21, 2021
In part one of this essay, we reviewed Russian and American political influence scuffles reported by The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York Times, and Washington Post.
How did the United States respond to coordinated Russian disinformation in 2014? Why would Russian trolls shift from fanning the flames of leftist narratives to supporting Trump?
2014: The US Counter-Disinformation Team
The US State Department was tired of Russia meddling with American public opinion. Secretary of State John Kerry called the Russian state-sponsored news media in the West, Russia Today (RT), a Kremlin propaganda arm. His Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel wrote that RT engages in disinformation.
Under the Bureau of International Information Programs, the US State Department created a Counter-Disinformation Team, modeled after the Reagan Administration’s Active Measures Working Group. With a beta website and hired staff, the project was scrapped after only eight months. Counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler said that the Obama administration decided that the project would antagonize Russia.
An anonymous official inside of the US State Department said that the Obama administration simply refused to take Russian disinformation seriously. Both are likely to be true – the Obama Administration likely had the mentality – “why are we going to antagonize a foreign nation by responding to a threat that we don’t believe can seriously impact America?”
Perhaps one of the most glaring political contradictions of this story is that we do not hear a clamor from Democrats about the Counter-Disinformation Team. Top Democrat officials with the power to confront Russian meddling, identified the threat in 2014 and then summarily scrapped the program. Now they speak of “fake news,” disinformation, and hacking, only after they lost an election. There’s nary a whisper to be heard in Democrat circles, saying, “Who were the people that promoted the Counter-Disinformation Team? Which of Obama’s appointees scrapped the program? That project would have preempted this issue.”
On the other hand, the question of whether government intelligence teams are the best tools to confront disinformation is much more important and will be discussed at the end of this series.
2015: Russian Trolls for Trump
After exacerbating American racial and class tensions with leftist groups like La Raza, Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street, Russian disinformation shifted to promoting Trump and denigrating Hillary Clinton. The Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University, RAND Corporation, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute agreed that Russia was using social media, paid internet trolls, botnets, and websites to criticize Clinton and support Trump. But why would they support Trump? Was this just the Putin Administration’s revenge on American Democrats for shedding light on his party’s corruption in 2011?
Knowing the biography of the Putin Administration, we can say that it was a delightful three-for-one deal: revenge/intimidation, shifting US/Russian loyalties abroad, and chaos in US civics. Their emotional side relished the thought of getting revenge against Hillary Clinton. Their rational side perceived an opportunity to serve Russian state objectives.
The Russian government does not care who wins US elections. Their goal is to erode faith in the United States government, its policies, and its interests, in order to pave a path for Russian influence, culture, deals, and policies abroad. Russia has adopted a part-mercantilist and part-Eurasianist stance, and its competitor is “Atlanticism,” led by the United States.
Russian interference in US civics will always fight Atlanticism, and support their mercantilist and Eurasianist positions. The research of RAND, Elliot School, and FPRI was corroborated after the election, when Russian officials were caught celebrating Trump’s victory by NSA signals intelligence (SIGINT). This suggests that Putin’s Administration truly believes that Trump will be better for its mercantilist and Eurasianist agenda and worse for Atlanticism. Whether or not that is true is a separate issue. Russia has been wrong about most concepts in politics, economy, and culture for over a century.
A third motivation is to spread chaos in United States civic discourse via disinformation, so that Americans have a harder time arriving at a sensible understanding of their own interests. Disinformation (black propaganda) does not induce emotional support like standard propaganda. It is an intentionally false narrative, supported by some truths, which poisons open communication channels by lowering the signal-to-noise ratio (valid information is the signal, falsehood and distraction is the noise). Disinformation fills the citizen’s head with lies, and it also creates noise and chaos. People then become cynical and paranoid about the communication channel itself, and they have a harder time participating in free, honest, and open information exchange. Most people lose interest in listening to the communication because picking out the signals from the noise becomes too tedious.
Intelligence is ultimately a preparation of the battlespace. The battle can take the form of a conventional war, or economic, monetary, trade, or cultural conflict. Exacerbating racial, religious, ideological, and class tensions, dramatizing and exaggerating corruption in the US government, and filling American heads with fiction serves the same goal – weakening American civics. That cannot be achieved by exclusively playing for one side of the tension.
With this in mind, many casual observers are misled to believe that Russian trolls promoted Trump because they are incredibly excited about his policies. When we understand that the goal is to make American civics “stink” so that normal people do not like touching it, it makes perfect sense that Russian trolls would fan the flames of the Black Lives Matter, La Raza, Occupy Wall Street, and Corrupt-Hillary narratives. They played both sides. Democrats admit privately that Russian disinformation fueled their animated supporters as well, but they keep that fact out of the narrative.
But soiling Trump with mountains of polemic did not need extra help. Popular US news media was doing passionate work on that task. To soil all candidates involved and produce the sentiment that the entire election is disgusting required dirt on Hillary Clinton. And quite frankly, digging up dirt on established political dynasties like the Clintons is not a difficult endeavor.
Finally, the Putin Administration’s Information Operations/Information Warfare (IO/IW) achieved classic mafia-like intimidation in addition to revenge and deranged American civic infighting. It sent a dire intimidation to American politicians of all parties: “Do not dare bring attention to Russian corruption, or assist Russian opposition politics, or else you will be the next target of destruction by disinformation, hacking, and IO/IW in general.” The Trump administration has received this message loud and clear. It will be interesting to see how it responds to the intimidation. Cowardly denial and avoidance? Brazen retaliation? Or giving Russia lip service while taking countermeasures behind the curtain?
Russia had an axe to grind with America after they blamed “the West” for their own civil unrest in response to the 2011 Russian election fraud. They started grinding that axe with the Trolls of Olgino. But trolling is not rocket science. Russia’s state-sponsored trolling surely was emulated by thousands of Russophilic sycophantic parrots across the globe with too much time on their hands.
In this way, state-sponsored disinformation created by a few hundred agents can snowball into viral internet content. Former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, put it perfectly when he characterized Russian trolling as seeking to weaken opponents and critics. He said, “They don’t try to win the argument. It’s to make everything seem relative. It’s kind of an appeal to cynicism.”
With the background of Russian-American political influence scuffles, the subsequent trolling, disinformation, and counter-disinformation stories elaborated, we have the context to ask each American: how can you confront trolls and disinformation? Following Alvarism will help. In the coming years, we will publish our textbooks on cultural autonomy and stability.