The Media Today

How should we think about Russian disinformation?

September 15, 2020

Last month, the Senate Intelligence Committee published a damning bipartisan report on Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. Since then, we’ve heard more about what Russia may be up to in 2020. A week ago, Brian Murphy, a senior official at the Department of Homeland Security, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that his bosses told him to suppress reports concerning ongoing Russian interference, because they risked making Trump “look bad.” (This was a big story, and would likely have been even bigger if it hadn’t landed at the same time as Bob Woodward’s book.) On Thursday, the Treasury Department slapped sanctions on Andrii Derkach, a Ukrainian politician with ties to Trumpworld, and tagged him as a Russian agent who’s been working to undermine the election; the same day, Microsoft warned that Russian military intelligence is once again trying to hack campaign aides. Peter Strzok, an FBI staffer turned Trump punching bag, and Alexander Vindman, a former administration aide who testified during Trump’s impeachment, both gave rare interviews to The Atlantic, during which they characterized Trump as a useful idiot for Vladimir Putin. In sum, Russia is back and “wilier than ever,” Politico’s Mark Scott wrote yesterday—and experts fear that the chaos has only just begun.

Last week, with such warnings starting to swirl around the news cycle, Joshua Yaffa, Moscow correspondent at the New Yorker, took a step back, asking—in a thought-provoking essay drawing on the research of Nina Jankowicz, Aric Toler, Peter Pomerantsev, and other experts—whether the threat of Russian disinformation, in particular, is actually “as dangerous as we think.” It can be challenging, Yaffa argues, to disentangle “intent from impact”—while Russia’s hack of internal Democratic Party emails, which were subsequently published by WikiLeaks, did seem to move the US electorate in 2016, the online trolling tactics pushed by Russia’s infamous Internet Research Agency had a “considerably less significant” impact, and seemed aimed at “scoring points with bosses and paymasters in Russia as much as influencing actual votes.” Major US news outlets, Yaffa notes, have lavished disproportionate attention on Russia-linked websites and accounts that have little to no reach; meanwhile, domestic actors, from Fox News hosts to Trump himself, routinely blast junk into the homes of millions of voters. Ultimately, while Russia is clearly trying to exacerbate America’s divisions, it didn’t create those divisions: America is doing a good job of dividing itself without outside help. “In focussing on the tactics of the aggressors, we may be overlooking our weaknesses as victims,” Yaffa writes. “What if, to borrow an old horror-movie trope, the call is coming from inside the house?”

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The debates Yaffa channels—and others like them—are not new; last year, for instance, my colleague Mathew Ingram assessed dueling studies claiming, respectively, that “fake news,” including junk pumped out by Russia, didn’t and possibly did affect the result in 2016. Such debates are newly relevant, though, and Yaffa’s essay reminds us of an insight that’s key to assessing them: the impact of Russian disinformation can’t be quantified as a precise function of its malign output, but rather is part of a more complicated psychological ecosystem.

Since 2016, countless reporters and pundits have indeed overhyped the significance of tactics that, upon sober reflection, don’t seem to amount to much—as Bellingcat’s Toler observed in April, one New York Times story on Russian disinformation cited a dubious tweet that, at time of writing, had been favorited twice and retweeted once—and America’s weakness as a victim is, ultimately, America’s problem. But when electoral margins are as fine as they were in 2016, it becomes harder to say for sure that low-grade trolling isn’t worth our attention. And, more importantly, the boundary between foreign aggression and domestic susceptibility is fuzzy, and porous. Regardless of the potency of its measurable output, Russia has undoubtedly planted itself in the American psyche as a big threat. As Yaffa notes, if Russia’s goal is to sow chaos, “being seen to affect outcomes is as good as actually affecting outcomes.”

Viewed one way, much Russian disinformation looks like inconsequential chaff that’s easy to ignore; viewed another way, it looks like a startlingly easy and efficient way of maintaining an imposing edifice of threat, and undermining Americans’ confidence in the way they consume information. To poison a glass of water, you don’t need to replace all the water with poison. All this raises some pretty mind-bending questions. Is the wave of conspiracy—QAnon, Plandemic, etc.—currently washing across the US a distinctively homegrown phenomenon, or is it tied to the much broader problem of rapidly-eroding trust in the purity of information, a problem that Russia is, at the very least, perceived to have stoked? What if a major news outlet citing a low-engagement tweet isn’t a stroke of luck for small-time propagandists? What if it’s the point?

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With any luck, news organizations will already have been grappling with such difficult questions, which could become even more pressing, depending on what Russia does next. Yaffa is right to assert that “in focussing on the tactics of the aggressors, we may be overlooking our weaknesses as victims”—but media outlets should ideally be able to focus aggressively on both, while retaining a well-balanced sense of proportion. A victim’s weakness doesn’t diminish the wrong of aggressing it, and again, the margins come November could be mighty fine. At the same time, we shouldn’t facilitate our own victimhood. Russia is working to help destroy public confidence in the news. It’s our job to retain—and build—as much confidence as we can.

Below, more on Russia and disinformation:

  • Outside the house, I: Craig Silverman, Ryan Mac, and Pranav Dixit, of BuzzFeed, obtained a memo in which Sophie Zhang, a former data scientist at Facebook, accuses the platform of failing to act quickly enough to crack down on political-manipulation campaigns in countries around the world. Among other incidents, Zhang claims that it took Facebook management nine months to respond to a coordinated, inauthentic campaign boosting the president of Honduras, and a year to respond to a mass harassment campaign that Azerbaijan’s ruling party weaponized against opponents.
  • Outside the house, II: Recently, Facebook and Twitter removed accounts linked to “Peace Data,” a “news” site that recruited American freelancers but was, according to officials, a front, seemingly linked to the Internet Research Agency in Russia. According to the Daily Beast, Peace Data initiated various forms of outreach to left-wing US publications including Jacobin, Truthout, and In These Times, none of which returned its interest. Peace Data also tried to recruit the freelancer Jacob Silverman. He, too, said no. “Rather than an advanced propaganda operation,” Silverman writes for Slate, “Peace Data was something much less sophisticated and more familiar: a content farm.”
  • Inside the house, I: As several outlets reported over the weekend, officials battling fires on the West Coast have also had to fight viral social-media conspiracies accusing left-wing activists of arson. Some officials, however, are part of the problem—as Everton Bailey, Jr., reports, for The Oregonian, two officials working for the sheriff’s office in Clackamas County, Oregon, helped stoke fears of politically-motivated arson.
  • Inside the house, II: The parents of Seth Rich, a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer whose death was weaponized by right-wing conspiracy theorists, are suing Fox News, Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman, and former Fox guest Ed Butowsky, alleging that they inflicted “emotional distress” by stoking the Rich rumors. According to the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer, Fox staffers including Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs are set to be deposed in the case, meaning they will have to testify under oath next month. Senior Fox executives are also set to be deposed.
  • Inside the house, III: Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the FBI raided the home of Jack Burkman, a right-wing operative. But the raid was a hoax, and the Post’s coverage quickly raised questions given that Burkman and his associate Jacob Wohl are notorious dirty tricksters. The Post has since deleted its story and replaced it with an editor’s note; the Beast’s Sommer, Lachlan Markay, and Adam Rawnsley have more. Last year, Jared Holt wrote for CJR that “the ease of ridiculing” Burkman and Wohl “sometimes brings them more attention than anything else.”
  • Meanwhile, in Russia: Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and sometime journalist who was poisoned recently, is continuing to recover at a hospital in Germany and plans to return to Russia soon. Over the weekend, Russia held local elections that were marred by allegations of irregularities. The results, the New Statesman’s Ido Vock reports, “will have reassured the Kremlin that it is, for the moment, able to keep a lid on opposition challenges at the ballot box. But they also demonstrate the potential for local campaigning to galvanise voters against the Kremlin.”

Other notable stories:

  • On Saturday, sheriff’s deputies in LA County forcefully arrested Josie Huang, a reporter with KPCC and LAist. Afterward, officials claimed that Huang “ignored repeated commands to stay back” and “did not identify herself as press,” but Huang then posted videos contradicting those claims; when the Post asked the sheriff’s department to explain the discrepancies, it declined to comment. (As ever, for more on two-faced police PR, read Alexandria Neason’s deep dive for CJR.) Elsewhere, police in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, shot and killed Ricardo Munoz, a Latino man. In the aftermath, familiar errors—including the use of the phrase “officer-involved shooting”—echoed in coverage.
  • Yesterday, Dawn Wooten, a nurse who works at a privately-run ICE detention center in Georgia, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging poor health practices at the facility; among other things, Wooten says that managers downplayed and underreported cases of COVID-19, and subjected many Spanish-speaking women to hysterectomies, possibly without their informed consent. Wooten was demoted after speaking up internally. She gave a series of interviews to The Intercept, which also corroborated her account.
  • For CJR, Harry Stopes, who worked with Julian Assange on an ill-fated book project, argues that there is “a greater affinity between Assange and the media than either would likely care to admit… In attempting to battle Trump with ‘the truth,’ the American media has evinced the same simplistic faith as Assange in the capacity of information itself to be a driver of political change.” Assange is currently fighting extradition to the US.
  • Red Ventures, a media and tech company, is buying CNET Media Group—a portfolio of tech sites including CNET, GameSpot, and ZDNet—from ViacomCBS in a deal worth roughly $500 million. The Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin reports that Red Ventures, which already owns consumer-focused sites including Bankrate and, will use the CNET portfolio “to market products and sell advertising.”
  • Kate Irby reports, for the Fresno Bee, on the progress of a clutch of lawsuits filed by Devin Nunes, a pro-Trump Congressman, including against the media companies McClatchy, CNN, the Post, and Hearst Magazines. The suits, Irby writes, aren’t going so well, yet Nunes continues to pursue them; legal experts suspect that they may constitute an intimidation and campaigning tactic, more than an attempt to win in court. Last year, Tony Biasotti spoke with media-law specialists about Nunes’ McClatchy lawsuit for CJR.
  • Last night, the city council of Hartford, Connecticut, called on Alden Global Capital—a hedge fund that recently became the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, which owns the Hartford Courant, among other papers—to not seek further shares in Tribune, and to consider offers that would return the Courant to “civic-minded ownership.” One local politician noted that Alden “sounds like a villainous company from a Disney movie.”
  • Yesterday, Marianne Combs, an arts reporter at Minnesota Public Radio, resigned, claiming that her bosses had “failed to move forward” on a story she’d been working on that outlines sexual-misconduct allegations against a staffer at MPR’s sister station. Combs accused management of repeatedly “neglecting women’s stories of abuse”; MPR’s president responded that the story did not yet meet its journalistic standards.
  • For The Objective, Deanna Schwartz, a journalism student at Northeastern, argues that journalism schools should stop expecting their students to contribute to major outlets without being paid for their work. “These opportunities are marketed as hands-on learning experiences and ways to get clips, but in reality, these arrangements are exploitative and harmful,” Schwartz writes. “These unpaid arrangements must end.”
  • And the Royal Court Theatre, in London, plans to reopen by staging a “living newspaper” in its building. The idea, The Guardian reports, “pays tribute to an initiative of the same name during the Great Depression… when the Federal Theatre Project engaged unemployed writers to create socially aware drama that grasped urgent issues.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.