Whether or not the FBI discovers serious and intentional (rather than just aspirational) collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, President Trump’s relentless dissembling and attacks on America’s free press—along with his attacks on the courts, independent pollsters, U.S. intelligence agencies, the Congressional Budget Office, or anyone who can marshal facts to challenge his assertions—are doing Putin’s work for him by undermining the White House’s credibility. If Trump continues this way, he will undermine the strength and credibility of the United States.
The broader message coming from this White House is chillingly similar to one the Kremlin has spent billions of dollars over the past decade promoting to audiences across Europe and the United States through its RT network, Sputnik news agency, multiple local language websites, and industrial-level social media operations: Western institutions are weak or unraveling; elections are rigged; predatory migrants and bloodthirsty terrorists lurk around every corner; and honest working people are under siege by insidious “cosmopolitan” interests.
President Trump might have used his recent trip to the G-20 meeting in Europe to champion the uplifting power of American democratic ideals and the unbreakable bonds of the Atlantic alliance. Instead he reinforced Putin’s west-in-crisis-clash-of-civilizations narrative.
During his speech in Warsaw, where there is no love for the Russians, he issued the obligatory call to Moscow to end its “destabilizing activity in Ukraine” and finally endorsed NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense commitment. The President offered no criticism of the Polish government’s attempts to undermine the independence of its judges and journalists. The core of the speech was Trump’s declaration that “the fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive”—leaving no doubt that his definition of “the West” and “our civilization” is not the inclusive liberal democratic order built up over the past seventy years but one founded instead on the exclusion of those (forces “from the South or the East”) who seek to breach American and European borders and undermine Judeo-Christian values.
“Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” Trump asked the crowd. “Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
Trump also felt no compunction about continuing his battles with U.S. intelligence agencies and news organizations on foreign soil. At a joint press conference with Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, he attacked CNN and NBC as “fake news,” even inviting Duda, who has tried to muzzle his own journalists, to recount his experiences with so-called dishonest reporters. When Putin, who has stifled nearly all independent journalism in Russia, trolled Trump at a photo op before their private meeting in Hamburg, pointing to reporters and asking, “These are the ones hurting you?” Trump replied: “These are the ones. You’re right about that.”
For an autocrat like Putin, the benefits are obvious. “The message is there is no such thing as democracy, so there is no point in asking for it,” says Ben Nimmo, of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. As for the broader propaganda strategy—what Nimmo calls the 4Ds: deception, denial, distortion, and distraction—the payoff is also big. It keeps his base enflamed, his opponents off balance, alienates and demoralizes most voters, and sows divisions among his neighbors.
The same approach works for Trump. There is no way of knowing if he would have won without a push from Moscow’s hackers and “news technologists.” (Do you need RT when you’ve got Breitbart?) His version of blood-and-soil populism and his mastery of the 4Ds served him incredibly well in the campaign.
The post-inaugural flood of distortions and grandiose or abusive tweets continue to deflect attention from his doubtful-to-disastrous policy proposals and his family’s many conflicts of interest, although nothing could deflect from the New York Times’ discovery of emails showing Donald Trump, Jr. leaping at the chance to meet during the campaign with a Kremlin-linked lawyer promising Russian-government sourced dirt on Hillary Clinton. When even those hard facts failed to shake Republican leaders out of their denial, Trump was quickly back on Twitter attacking the press, calling the story “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history” and lashing out at pollsters and Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s 4D powers, and their destructive implications, were on full display during that Warsaw press conference, when he was asked “once and for all” to state whether he believed Russia interfered in the U.S. election. In a three minute response (including follow up):
- He tentatively endorses the idea, “I think it was Russia,” then immediately undercuts even that, saying “a lot of people interfered” and “it’s been happening for a long time.”
- He then tries to deflect attention to, by implication, an even bigger scandal: “Why did [President Obama] do nothing about it?” He offers two possible explanations, both of which would be more distracting if we hadn’t heard them before: “I don’t think he choked. I think what happened is he thought Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, and he said let’s not do anything about it.”
When the questioner reminds the President that his own intelligence agencies “have been far more definitive” and asks why he won’t agree and say it was Russia, Trump continues deflecting:
- He says the judgment is not definitive since after “some very heavy research” he discovered “only three or four” of the country’s 17 intelligence agencies signed the finding. What he neglects to say is the Director of National Intelligence only asked the FBI, CIA, and NSA to do the assessment. All were in agreement.
- And then after saying “nobody really knows for sure,” he offers his final Soviet-style “whataboutism”: “I remember . . . how everybody was 100 percent sure that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Guess what? That led to one big mess.”
Trump and his inner circle may believe this approach is working, or at least buying time. But the damage to American credibility is real and dangerous. On the most transactional level—the one the art of the dealmaker should at least understand—if the American President doesn’t think his own intelligence agencies are credible, why should any other leader invest political capital, treasure, or blood when Trump makes the case for action—whether against Syria’s Bashar al Assad or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un—based on findings from those same agencies?
And it surpasses understanding that this White House, so sensitive to power dynamics, fails to see how its influence is already draining away. One of the most striking and disturbing takeaways from the G-20 summit was how isolated the United States has already become on both climate change and trade. The day before the summit opened, the European Union and Japan announced a free trade deal. If it goes through, it will cover 10 percent of the world’s population, 30 percent of the global economy, and 40 percent of global trade. It will not include the United States.
A few days reading and watching the website of the Kremlin-owned RT (Russia Today until its rebranding) network shows just how closely the Trump and RT narratives track—and how hard it will be to push back until the President changes his.
The network’s slogan is “Question More” and alleged Fake News (irony is not RT’s strong point) is the favorite topic. The day before Trump tweeted “I am thinking about changing the name of “FakeNewsCNN to #FraudNewsCNN (followed soon after by a retweet of a video of him body slamming a man with a CNN logo superimposed on his head), RT’s flagship CrossTalk show devoted its full thirty minutes to the “Counterfeit News Network,” asking “if CNN’s evidence-free war on Donald Trump is really at the expense of real journalism.” CrossTalk’s most recent show on the Donald Trump, Jr. emails opens: “Investigations without crimes, hysteria without facts and substance…. The longer this witch hunt continues, the more the mainstream media loses the trust of the public.”
RT’s other evergreen is the European version of Trump’s “American carnage:” stories about a West staggering under the weight of immigrant-driven sexual assaults and murders, corporate greed, and “deep state” abuses. Like Breitbart and American news sites ranging from hard- to alt-right, RT seems particularly obsessed with fictitious European “no-go zones” and the supposed unraveling of Sweden. RT’s coverage of the G-20 summit focused more on the anti-globalization street protests—including a live homepage feed—than on the actual meeting.
Not surprisingly, RT doesn’t do a lot of in-depth reporting. It relies mainly on not-so-outside experts—a quick Google search of a name often leads back either to RT or some other pro-Russian website. The network draws some high profile commentators, including “America’s most important intellectual” Noam Chomsky (‘If you criticize policies you are anti-American. That only happens in dictatorships’—Chomsky to RT.) and the Green Party’s Dr. Jill Stein. Stein, you may recall, was also a guest at Putin’s head table for RT’s December 2015 anniversary gala, the one General Mike Flynn was paid $45,000 to address from the dais.
In late December 2015, RT ran this headline: ‘Putin killed reporters? Prove it!’—Trump to ABC show host. As the story explained, then-candidate Donald Trump “fiercely defended Vladimir Putin” when George Stephanopoulos asked him how he could praise the Russian leader who has been accused of ordering the deaths of opponents and journalists. Trump’s reply: “He’s never—it’s never been proven that he’s killed anybody. So, you know, you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, at least in our country.” Nimmo says that during the early months of 2016 RT started giving Trump even more headlines, after he began saying that the U.S. political system was rigged. “He became a high profile validator [for the] Russians’ main narrative that U.S. democracy is a stitch up, all fake.”
In May of this year, clearly looking for a younger demographic, RT launched FAKEbook Live, a hipper, slyer weekly talk show streaming on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, notably without obvious RT branding. Two potty-mouthed millennial hosts respond to posted questions and take gleeful shots at Trump: ridiculing his sword-dancing visit to Saudi Arabia and raising the jocular specter of a World War III superpower showdown over Syria. They are both huge fans of WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and offer indulgent criticism for Syria’s Assad—“You can’t back him up completely because he has made some huge mistakes.” Their main message is don’t trust the U.S. media, especially not the “fake” New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN.
For all of the slick production and cynical hipster tone, the show doesn’t appear to have taken off. The most successful FAKEbook Live show has scored fewer than 3,000 views on YouTube. By the end of the season there were heavy hints on air that at least one of the hosts wouldn’t be coming back in the fall.
You don’t have to look too deeply into what is happening inside Russia to know that Putin is no genius. But his “political technologists” were far ahead of Washington in recognizing the growing anxiety out there and the power of social media to feed, exploit, and leverage those anxieties for the Kremlin’s political gain.
It is hard to assess RT’s actual influence. The network reports an annual budget of around $300 million and claims that its potential reach is 700 million viewers in a hundred countries. While its cable presence in the United States is negligible, English language RT has more than two million YouTube subscribers (more than three times Fox News and four times NBC News), claiming to be the “most watched network on YouTube with over 4 billion views.” Even then, its most popular videos are clickbait: four-year-old footage of a meteorite crashing in Russia and six-year old videos of the Japanese Tsunami. The same video of Trump chasing a marine’s hat blown off by the downdraft from Marine One’s rotors led the site for days after the G-20 summit. This is not the stuff of grand conspiracies.
But RT and the Sputnik news agency are only the most visible parts of a much larger ecosystem that also includes Russian-financed nationalist and conspiracy-fueling websites in multiple languages, sophisticated social media operations—24-hour troll factories and bots—and, of course, government-sponsored hackers.
In Ukraine, non-stop Russian propaganda and lies (a three-year old boy tortured and crucified by the Ukrainian military; the shoot down of flight MH17 was a Ukrainian plot to assassinate Putin; or visa free-travel to the EU will increase sex trafficking) are intrinsic parts of a hybrid warfare strategy that also includes military and cyber attacks on the Kiev government.
How much has the Russian campaign of hacked, hyped, and faked news contributed to the rise of populist governments in Hungary and the Czech Republic—and how much damage can it do to leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel or France’s Emmanuel Macron? The Kremlin certainly thinks it is worth the continued investment.
A recent Disinformation Review, a handy compendium of the fruits of this investment from the European Union’s Stratcom East monitoring service, includes several pernicious gems: One story offered up in English and Finnish claiming that a German family “escaped” to Russia either because there were too many immigrants or because German authorities threatened to take away their children unless they stopped demonstrating against immigrants. A story in Czech claims that new documents obtained in U.S. courts prove the U.S. government created and supports ISIS. A story in Georgian claims that an LGBT “mafia” is working to undermine the Orthodox Church. Stories in several languages predict the imminent collapse of Sweden.
If the U.S. election was the most spectacular success so far for the Kremlin hack-and-hype team, the most spectacular failure was this May’s French election. A last minute dump of hacked emails from the Macron campaign—with supposed revelations of offshore accounts and tax evasion—received very little coverage. Macron went on to overwhelmingly defeat his populist, far-right opponent, Marine LePen, a Putin and Trump favorite.
There are a variety of explanations for this failure. The information arrived just before a pre-election news blackout, suggesting that the Russians were scrambling after having underestimated Macron’s chances. French voters and journalists were skeptical after the U.S. election experience. While French news organizations stayed away, under orders from France’s election commission not to report the contents of the hacked emails and warnings from the Macron campaign that some of the content was faked, the emails were picked up and pushed back to France by Russia’s Sputnik news agency and by Twitter users in the United States.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab moved quickly to identify the sources of the social media campaign. As Nimmo explained in an article on Medium, they tracked the #Macronleaks hashtag, as it reached “47,000 tweets in just three and a half hours,” tracing it back “through a machine analysis . . . to the Twitter account of Jack Posobiec, the Washington DC Bureau Chief of an obscure, alt-right website, theRebel.media.” That information, shared widely with the press, appears to have further undermined the credibility of the hack.
What lessons the Russians learned from their failure isn’t yet clear. The German elections are still ten weeks away, and Russian hackers may be sitting on a pile of data from the German Parliament and Merkel’s party. It remains to be seen what they will do with them.
There are a host of ideas on how—and how hard—to push back against the Russian disinformation campaign. Peter Pomerantsev and Michael Weiss, who raised an early alarm about the Kremlin’s “weaponization” of “information, culture, and money,” called for creating a “Transparency International”-style rating system for disinformation; “counter-propaganda editors” for newspapers; a “disinformation charter” for media (and exclusion for “organizations that practice conscious deception”); tracking Kremlin networks and money back to pundits and think tanks; and public information campaigns. But while the French elections show the power of public awareness, the censorship potential of charters, rating systems, and shunning should rightly make us queasy.
Germany’s threats to fine social networks up to €50 million for carrying hate speech and “Fake News” have the tech companies scrambling to come up with algorithms to edit out offensive or extremist content. Allowing a machine to decide preemptively what language is merely foul and offensive versus what is foul, offensive, and dangerous (or at least dangerous to a company’s bottom line) can too easily lead to the 21st-century version of airbrushed Soviet photos. Who will even know when a thought or image or fact—or thousands of them—disappear?
There have been calls on Capitol Hill for reinvigorating the U.S. Cold War-era broadcasting system to push back against RT and Putin’s larger propaganda machine. I am a big fan of VOA, but if the President keeps bashing the credibility of U.S. independent media, who is going to believe a U.S.-funded broadcaster? Worryingly, under a new “reform,” the VOA and the rest of the system are to be placed under the control of a new chief appointed by President Trump—rather than the bipartisan Broadcasting Board of Governors. In June, Politico reported that the White House was “eyeing” an ally of Steve Bannon, the White House strategist and former Breitbart editor, for the job.
All of these, of course, are tactical answers to a more fundamental set of questions: Why is the narrative of exploitation and victimhood so compelling? Why do so many people feel so fed up with politics and the press that they are buying into the hype and distortions, or checking out altogether? Is there any hope of pushing back against the Russian propaganda machine so long as the President of the most powerful democracy in the world is validating so much of Putin’s anti-democratic worldview?
The first two questions demand serious responses. But they are normal questions. It is extraordinary—and frightening—that we even have to consider the third.