Illustration by Christie Chisholm

Putin’s throwback propaganda playbook

Behind Russia’s information war

January 18, 2017

Russian President Vladimir Putin had dreamed of becoming an intelligence agent ever since high school. “What amazed me most was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not,” the former KGB agent later recalled. “One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.”

Putin’s prophetic words weren’t uttered during the Cold War, when the US and Soviet Union were waging battles of opinion, using the weapons of propaganda to widen their spheres of influence. Putin’s remarks are from his autobiography, First Person, which was published in 2000. They are perhaps more relevant now than ever, as the world is recognizing–just a tad too late–that Russia is still playing by the rules of the Cold War.

Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 US presidential election could go down in history as Putin’s masterpiece. Yet it is a mission he accomplished with an elegant simplicity that much of the media coverage has overlooked. This was not a complicated, high-tech, impossible-to-understand orchestration, but a simple plan drawn up by a leader who has masterminded geopolitical misinformation.

Instead of leaflets, TV commercials, and posters, Putin accomplished his feat using much simpler, cheaper, and more effective means: bots that spread misinformation on social media sites including Facebook and Twitter, anonymously-operated third party sites that churn out fake news, and official state-run news networks like RT and Sputnik.

Mainstream journalists have seen their worlds turned upside down by the realization that 75 percent of news consumers can’t tell a fake news story from a real one. Putin, meanwhile, seems to have understood the gullibility of news consumers all along. US media and intelligence agencies are only now beginning to grapple with the consequences of Russia’s misinformation campaign. And as they do, the same Russian trolls, bots, and state-run websites that promoted anti-Hillary, pro-Trump propaganda have set their sites on upcoming European elections.

“A good chunk of the Trump-supporting accounts and networks from last year are now focusing on Germany,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent and Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in an interview with CJR. Watts is now a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, where he analyzes social bots, trolls, and websites that intelligence agencies say are the foot soldiers of Russia’s information war. “They’ll move between assignments,” he tells me, “but that’s their new assignment–to focus on the German election.”

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Observing these bots in action can be a comical experience. The day after the deadly terrorist attack in Berlin last month–which right-wing politicians in Germany quickly blamed on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policies–one of these trolls attacked Merkel on Twitter. Only it mistook Merkel’s parody account for her actual account.

“@Queen_Europe Shame on U for opening the borders!  U R responsible for the demise of Germany. U should B thrown out!!!”

@Queen_Europe’s response: “Good morning Igor! You must have been on the night shift.”

The same bot a few weeks earlier had targeted Hillary Clinton.

The pivot of Russian bots from anti-Hillary to anti-Merkel might be a development of the past month, but Russia’s focus on neighboring Europe is nothing new. In fact, analysts who pointed out Russia’s efforts to influence the US election before the American government seemed to care have been observing Russia’s digital efforts to destabilize the European Union since at least 2015.

Since the beginning of Europe’s refugee crisis, a surge in false news reports and postings on social media have accused asylum seekers of committing crimes they didn’t actually commit, says Patrick Sensburg, a senior member of parliament from Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Readers who believed the stories to be true, and then didn’t see journalists reporting them independently, felt that the media was withholding the truth, he says.

While the use of state propaganda as an international weapon is nothing new, the breadth, scope, and impact that a disinformation campaign can have today puts the information wars of the Cold War to shame. “Just like in Vietnam, you had flyers being sent down,” says Sensburg, referring to the anti-Communist leaflets dropped by American warplanes during the Vietnam War. “Now we have virtual flyers being flown around the entire world through the internet. It’s cheaper, easier and much more widespread.”

It’s also highly effective. Russia’s information war helped elect a US president who’s sympathetic to Russia, and now Trump’s ascendancy has turned his supporters into Putin supporters, says Watts, of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. Putin’s favorability ratings among Republicans has improved by 56 points since 2014, according to the Washington Post. In 2014, an Economist/YouGov poll found that 66 percent of Republicans had a negative view of the Russian leader, seeing him as “rolling over US interests in Europe.” The same poll, conducted in December 2016, found that just 10 percent of Republicans viewed Putin negatively.

The result of the US election was a wake up call to European governments that had until now underestimated the power of Russia’s propaganda efforts.

Two weeks after the election of Donald Trump, the European parliament adopted a resolution “to counteract anti-EU propaganda by third parties,” singling out Russia for disinformation and “propaganda warfare” aimed at disrupting the EU integration process and backing far-right political parties and populist forces. Among its many proposals, the resolution calls on EU member states to encourage media education within their countries and to strengthen freedom of the press and independent journalism.

German members of parliament, including Patrick Sensburg of the CDU, have called for the criminalization of fake-news campaigns. Both NATO and the EU have established special units to combat this propaganda war, which Rastislav Kacer, a veteran diplomat who served at NATO headquarters, told The New York Times in May, “is equally as dangerous as more conventional hostile action.”


The media is getting played, too

 The American press has focused a disproportionate amount of attention on Russian hacking and cyberattacks, and the reporting itself has only muddied the truth for most in the audience, says Watts. “The hacking generates information, which promotes Russia’s influence campaign, but the end objective is to convince people to choose a candidate based on Russia’s preference. This is getting confused, because people hear ‘hack’ and they think their votes are being changed.”

According to Watts, more coverage should have been paid to Russia’s information war, and its effort to influence voter opinion, than on the cyber attacks that were conducted as a means to attain some of the information that swayed voters. After all, it wasn’t just information gleaned from those hacks that influenced voters, but widespread false stories that circulated across Facebook and Twitter throughout the campaign.

A simple look at the headlines that preceded and followed the election illustrates the emphasis on hacking: “U.S. Says Russia Directed Hacks to Influence Elections,” says The New York Times headline on October 7, and follows on November 25, with: “U.S. Officials Defend Integrity of Vote, Despite Hacking Fears.”

It’s no wonder, given the headlines, that 50 percent of Clinton voters in a recent poll believe Russia “tampered with vote tallies” to help Trump. Of course misinformation is bipartisan: 62 percent of Trump voters in the same poll incorrectly believe millions of  votes were cast by undocumented immigrants. 

Trump, either confused himself or capitalizing on the confusion,  took to Twitter  on January 7 to assure his 19 million followers: “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!”

“The goal (of Russia) is not to change votes,” explains Watts. “The goal is to erode countries from the inside out using their own democratic systems. It’s to break down democratic systems and put in candidates that are preferable to Russia’s interests, which is namely dissolving the EU and breaking up NATO.” Trump, for his part, has made clear that he does not think highly of the EU or NATO.

It’s a classic page from the Cold War playbook, says Watts, adding that Putin has brought new meaning to the Soviet-Era doctrine of using “the force of politics” rather than “the politics of force.”

“I think they’re probably amazed at how well it worked because a lot of this stuff is extremely crude and dumb,” Watts adds, referring to the bogus fake news stories that got so much traction on social media during the US election campaign. For example: the falsehood that Trump received the endorsement of the Pope; the idea that President Obama and Hillary Clinton created ISIS; that Obama signed an executive order banning the pledge of allegiance in schools; that ISIS endorsed Clinton; and that Clinton was deathly ill–a fabrication perpetuated by Rudy Giuliani in an interview on Fox News, when he instructed viewers to “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness,’ take a look at the videos for yourself.”

Russia’s ultimate goal is to sow distrust in the democratic process and in democracy itself, says Stefan Meister of the German Council on Foreign Relations, in an interview. A free and trustworthy press, of course, is a big part of that.

American media coverage has not only focused disproportionately on hacking, but it has also made Russia’s information war seem more complex than it is. Much of the Kremlin’s efforts to veer the election in its preferred direction were overt, not covert. In a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on January 6, the role played by RT–the state run news agency formerly known as Russia Today–is covered in greater detail than any other part of Russia’s campaign to influence the American electorate. According to the US intelligence report, RT’s programming during the presidential race was “aimed at undermining viewers’ trust of US democratic procedures,” and its social media and internet arms were used to spread “strategic messaging for the Russian government.”

Russia’s propaganda efforts aren’t partisan per se, though in the US election their preferred candidate was Trump. “The Russians don’t care who they’re helping, whether it’s the left or right wing. There are no barriers, as long as it weakens the system,” says Meister. “What Russia wants is to further its own interests, and at the moment, right-wing parties tend to speak to those interests more than the left,” says Meister, who co-authored a report published by the Atlantic Council in November titled The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses.

In Germany, for instance, Russia has cozied up not only to the far-right AfD party, but also to the extreme left wing party, Die Linke (literally, The Left). When you look at conspiracy websites of the left and the right, he says, you can always see links to RT, Sputnik and other Russian state media. Russia’s parallel goal is to bring down governments that go against Russian interests. This explains why Russia preferred Trump over Clinton, and why Russia’s information war is now focused on Angela Merkel, who pushed for EU sanctions against Russia in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine, and may extend those sanctions over its role in the Syrian War.


More damaging to the press?

It is impossible to prove whether Russia’s campaign to influence the US election actually led to Trump’s victory. Meister, for one, believes Trump would have won the election either way. But if one of the goals of Russia’s campaign was to crumble to pieces any faith Americans had left in the media, it may have succeeded. “Part of Russia’s strategy has been to undermine the credibility of Western media,” says Meister. “People don’t know who to trust anymore, what to read anymore.”

Few journalists are putting all the pieces together save, for example, Neil MacFarquhar of The New York Times, or Adrian Chen at the New Yorker.  Yet most reporters are too focused on the idea that the information war was about Trump vs. Hillary.

“The main success of this campaign is not that it took place, but the panic we are in now,” Meister adds. “We’ve lost our self-confidence in our system, in our democracy, in our elections and in our media. That’s the biggest success of the Russian campaign.”

While European governments are scrambling to figure out what to do to prevent Russia–or any third party–from meddling in their elections, in reality, little can be done to stop the cycle that’s already begun. Fake news is a difficult hurdle to remove when the people who believe it to be true are not going to trust the media or political organizations who tell them it isn’t, says Stephan Russ-Mohl, director of the European Journalism Observatory.

European governments, including Germany, have suggested creating governmental agencies to combat fake news. That, said Russ-Mohl, would be “rather counterproductive. I think a Ministry of Truth is something we definitely don’t need,” he says, referring to a ministry from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. He believes that news organizations and NGO’s–not governments–should be the watchdogs.

The world, Meister says, seems to be waking up to the fact Russia is a country run by old school intelligence agents.

“When you have a former KGB agent as the president, you have to understand … he knows exactly how to manipulate you,” he adds. “Here there was this kind of naivety of ‘Oh Russia will now be a democracy, it will take time but it will change.’ I think only now we understand that the reality of this regime is a very different one. It has absolutely no interest in becoming more like us. Its interest is in exporting its rules and norms to us, not vice-versa.”

Yardena Schwartz is a freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, CBS News, NBC News, and MSNBC. Previously, Yardena was a producer at NBC News in New York.