America’s turmoil ushers in the golden age of Russian propaganda

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Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election has been described as “the most successful influence campaign in history, one that will be studied globally for decades.” When hordes of Russian trolls in St. Petersburg labored at their keyboards, their taskmasters could hardly have imagined the potential reach and impact of that relatively low-cost operation. The Kremlin’s covert and overt propagandists were striving to reach everyday people that would impact others within their sphere of influence. The bigger the influence, the wider the reach—which is why Russian state media outlet RT (formerly known as Russia Today) editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan, admitted that the network’s strategy included aiming to engage any Westerners who can sway public opinion—including major influencers and celebrities.

According to analysis published in January of 2019 by researchers at New York and Princeton Universities, older Americans are disproportionately more likely to share disinformation. The same study revealed that conservative users were more likely to share “fake news” than liberal users: 18 percent of Republicans shared links to disinformation websites, compared to less than 4 percent of Democrats.

Another study determined that biases play a big part in the spread of disinformation. Confirmation bias plays a big part in the success of disinformation campaigns; when reporting by real media outlets does not support the system of beliefs shaped by disinformation, some users gravitate to “fake news” providers to validate their opinions, and are more likely to share their content so as to reinforce the validity of their preferred narratives. To further reinforce their misshapen viewpoints, those users would be likely to share misleading news articles to prove According to a Pew survey, 14 percent of respondents admitted to sharing stories they already knew were false. On social media, this amounts to an unbridled growth of misleading information. In the press, confirmation bias can allow disinformation to take root and flourish in plain sight, producing the most severe consequences—propaganda masquerading as legitimate news coverage. Disinformation that isn’t in plain sight is, in fact, more dangerous by nature.

In 2016 the Russians won disinformation bingo: an older Republican male and former reality TV celebrity serving in the highest government position in the United States with nearly sixty-six million Twitter followers and media outlets echoing his every word. When the Kremlin propagandist Vladimir Soloviev interviewed Margarita Simonyan about information operations, he asked whether any American politicians disseminate Russian agitprop in conjunction with RT. Simonyan coyly replied: “Only one. Donald Trump.” She quickly added: “Just kidding.” Portraying controversial statements as jokes—or painting inconvenient facts as too ridiculous to be true—are some of the methods frequently implemented by the pro-Kremlin propagandists.

It is, however, no joke that US President Donald J. Trump has indeed disseminated a wide variety of Russian conspiracy theories and based his foreign policy decisions on the Kremlin’s talking points. President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, is also a prolific purveyor of bogus narratives and conspiracy theories. When disinformation takes hold in the highest office in the land, it can produce devastating real-life consequences.

For example, after being caught red-handed interfering in the 2016 US elections, the Russians have frequently attempted to impugn the credibility of US intelligence agencies and then try to offload the blame on Ukraine. Fortunately for the Kremlin, they found Trump to be a willing collaborator who dispatched Attorney General William P. Barr on worldwide trips, reportedly to meet foreign intelligence officials with the goal of “seeking their help in a Justice Department inquiry that President Trump hopes will discredit U.S. intelligence agencies’ examination of possible connections between Russia and members of the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”

The US president also sent Rudy Giuliani on an ill-fated mission to Ukraine, demanding that the country facing ongoing Russian aggression provide nonexistent exculpatory evidence to exonerate the Kremlin, and to create self-incriminating materials wherein Ukraine itself would be implicated in  election interference. Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, confirmed that military aid to Ukraine—money that had been appropriated by Congress and was desperately needed by Ukrainians to resist Russian aggression—was withheld in order to induce the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate (i.e. corroborate) a conspiracy theory about the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) during the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, the Russian state media was openly urging the Trump administration to descend down the same rabbit hole, in order to whitewash Russia, destroy Ukraine’s relationship with the United States and at the same time use the underlying scandal to demonstrate that American democracy is a sham and the world of U.S. politics is inherently corrupt.

At the same time, Russian propaganda disseminators seize upon any commentary by U.S. public officials that feeds the disingenuous premise of “whataboutism”: it’s OK for the Kremlin to interfere in our elections because the United States allegedly does the same to Russia. President Trump reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, because the United States did the same in other countries. Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said during the Democratic primary debate that—like Russia—the U.S. has “tampered with other elections.” Prior to her presidential run, Tulsi Gabbard argued that “the United States either overtly or covertly sought to influence the outcome of elections” in multiple countries, specifically complaining about alleged election interference by the U.S. in Russia.

The appearance of fair play—based on alleged malign reciprocity and a false suggestion of moral equivalency between the United States and Russia—plays straight into the hands of Kremlin propagandists, who amplify this kind of commentary in an attempt to normalize and rationalize this deeply flawed premise. The Russian propaganda narrative omits the motive as a key factor that sets apart U.S. involvement that aims to ensure fair and free elections under oppressive regimes, as opposed to Russian election meddling that is designed to damage and divide democratic societies.

While the Kremlin’s propaganda overwhelmingly benefitted the Trump campaign in 2016— and they explicitly intend to do the same in 2020—Russia’s agenda is much bigger than this particular presidency. The Kremlin intends to delegitimize democracies, weaken transatlantic alliances, decimate the rule of law, and force the United States to abdicate world leadership, thereby allowing authoritarian regimes to take the lead and operate with impunity. And we find ourselves in an unprecedented situation where our adversaries are being aided and abetted by the office of our president.

As a country in decline, Russia places extraordinary emphasis on nonlinear methods of undermining its vastly more powerful adversaries. Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, Army General Valery Gerasimov said: “Information technologies are becoming one of the most promising types of weapons. The information sphere, without having clearly defined national borders, provides opportunities for remote, covert influence not only on critical information infrastructures, but also on the population of the country, directly affecting the state’s national security. That is why the study of issues of preparation and conduct of informational actions is the most important task of military science. Information technologies are becoming one of the most promising types of weapons.”

Putin’s Russia is working to increase its influence over the post-Soviet space and assume the dominant role in the Middle East and Africa, securing unfettered access to global resources, such as oil, natural gas, diamonds and precious metals. The Kremlin is building and strengthening its positions all over the globe, while working to dissuade the nations from relying on U.S. leadership. Russia is already using the Trump administration’s actions with respect to our Kurdish allies to assert that America cannot be trusted, that the United States always betrays its allies and that the world should look to Russia, instead.

These malign efforts can be counteracted only by the resurgence of true American patriotism, defined by placing allegiance to our country above party affiliations, business interests, or any other lines of division. The alarm should be sounded loud and clear, since the Kremlin threatens not only our elections, but also our way of life and global leadership, which in turn impacts thriving and fledgling democracies all over the world. A lot is at stake and only a whole-of-society approach can disrupt and reverse the destructive course of anti-American propaganda—regardless of its origins—and in spite of its extensive reach.

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