Russian interference in the 2016 US election has been widely documented in press reports, the Atlantic provides a reasonable summary of the details in the official joint US Intelligence Agencies report. After stonewalling and denying, in time even Donald Trump conceded the basic truth it actually took place.
Another report was the leaked dossier by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele. Initially written for GOP primary opponents of Trump, it was later sold again to Democrats. Best known for pissgate – salacious claims about Donald Trump’s presumed sexual predilections – buried in the 35 page report were also a myriad of details about Russian media influence operations, including hacking and trolling, Russian orchestration of the DNC Guccifer 2.0 leaks, as well as Wikileaks’ Podesta emails.
It too didn’t provide named or public sources. And, as Glenn Greenwald and others correctly noted at the time, that should give any skeptical reader pause. But in the weeks since events in Russia have led credence to Steele’s report.
For example, after the report leaked, there were several Russian arrests for treason of hackers also suspected of having been sources. As well as the murder of Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB general believed to have been the report’s primary source. But the most damning circumstantial evidence is the Steele dossier claim Russia had agreed to sell Trump 19% of the state oil company Rosneft, in exchange for lifting sanctions. Suspiciously, Reuters reported shortly after Trump was sworn in to office, Russia had sold a 19% stake of the oil firm through a cascade of intermediaries, making tracing of its final owner(s) impossible.
Thus, revelations of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s hasty resignation, for having been caught by wiretap discussing sanctions against Russia, as well as news that Trump officials had many such repeated contacts with Russian officials, might make one suspect there had been a behind-the-scenes negotiation of a quid-pro-quo for Trump’s personal gain.
Which might explain why, when MI6 spy Christopher Steele’s name was revealed as the author of that Russian Election Interference Dossier, he ran like hell in hiding. Perhaps out of fear he could be slipped a nasty cup ‘o Russian polonium special Earl Grey at a London cafe. These people are dangerous!
This news is now common knowledge. Spread out across an official US report, a perhaps credible dossier, and curious events about the changing US-Russian relations since the Trump inauguration, all reported in various disparate news sources. Which, taken in aggregate, suggest more than a whiff of corruption by Trump. But it may be more than that.
As John McCain noted on the Senate floor, Russia overtly intervening in US elections is tantamount to an act of war. Why in God’s name would the Russian government risk provoking the United States to war? And how could mere cyber attacks have had such an unexpected effect on the US election outcome?
What I want to discuss is not just the tactics, the HOW of Russian propaganda efforts, but also the WHY. Their overall strategy.
But first, the tactics.
Tactics of State Sponsored Trolling
Official government press outlets are not the main distribution points for black propaganda. Thus, though many decry Russia Today as pro-Putin propaganda, it generally disseminates factual news with a negative slant about Russia’s opponents, much like the partisan division between Fox News and MSNBC in the US. Instead, the goal is to trick or manipulate trusted press outlets in each country into reporting fake news. In order to damage the credibility of the national press for having reported on something discovered to have been false. Or, if it’s ignored, to charge that nation’s press with political censorship.
How does that work? With professional troll farms.
Professional trolls are not kids out for lulz, gaming a forum by inciting angry responses to bogus comments for kicks. When a large well-funded actor engages in organized gaming of mass communications, it can be a powerful propaganda tool to shift perceptions across whole populations. Just about every state and large PR firms for corporate clients do this.
An investigative series on cyber perception influence tactics for online forum manipulation, written by Glenn Greenwald back in 2014, revealed secret documents from the British GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). Based on documents obtained from the Snowden leaks, Greenwald wrote:
Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about ‘dirty trick’ tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking ‘Five Eyes’ alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled ‘The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.’
By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse ‘hacktivists’ of using, the use of ‘honey traps’ (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses. But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.
Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: ‘false flag operations’ (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting ‘negative information’ on various forums.
It should come as no surprise Russia uses similar tactics. However, as Andrew Weisburd, Clint Watts, and JM Burger argued back in November 2016, at the excellent military analysis blog War on The Rocks, Russians do it better. And with foreign policy goals in mind:
Active measures employ a three-pronged approach that attempts to shape foreign policy by directing influence in the following ways: state-to-people, people-to-people, and state-to-state. More often than not, active measures sidestep traditional diplomacy and normal state-to-state relationships. The Russian government today employs the state-to-people and people-to-people approaches on social media and the internet, directly engaging U.S. and European audiences ripe for an anti-American message, including the alt-right and more traditional right-wing and fascist parties. It also targets left-wing audiences, but currently at a lower tempo.
Until recently, Western governments focused on state-to-state negotiations with Putin’s regime largely missed Russian state-to-people social media approaches. Russia’s social media campaigns seek five complementary objectives to strengthen Russia’s position over Western democracies:
- Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance;
- Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures;
- Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions;
- Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations;
- Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction
In sum, these influence efforts weaken Russia’s enemies without the use of force. Russian social media propaganda pushes four general themes to advance Moscow’s influence objectives and connect with foreign populations they target.
Political messages are designed to tarnish democratic leaders or undermine institutions. Examples include allegations of voter fraud, election rigging, and political corruption. Leaders can be specifically targeted, for instance by promoting unsubstantiated claims about Hillary Clinton’s health, or more obviously by leaking hacked emails.
Financial propaganda weakens citizen and investor confidence in foreign markets and posits the failure of capitalist economies. Stoking fears over the national debt, attacking institutions such as the Federal Reserve, and attempts to discredit Western financial experts and business leaders are all part of this arsenal.
In one example from August, Disneyland Paris was the site of a reported bomb scare. Social media accounts on Twitter reported that the park had been evacuated, and several news outlets – including Russian propaganda stations RT and Sputnik – published alarming stories based on the tweets, which escalated in hysteria as the afternoon stretched on. In fact, the park had not been evacuated. But that didn’t stop Disney’s stock from taking a temporary hit. This fluctuation could be exploited by someone who knew the fake scare was coming, but we do not have access to the data that would allow us to know whether this happened.
Social issues currently provide a useful window for Russian messaging. Police brutality, racial tensions, protests, anti-government standoffs, online privacy concerns, and alleged government misconduct are all emphasized to magnify their scale and leveraged to undermine the fabric of society.
Finally, wide-ranging conspiracy theories promote fear of global calamity while questioning the expertise of anyone who might calm those fears. Russian propaganda operations since 2014 have stoked fears of martial law in the United States, for instance, by promoting chemtrails and Jade Helm conspiracy theories. More recently, Moscow turned to stoking fears of nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
One example of online information warfare by an Army of Russian Trolls was revealed by Andrew Chen in a New York Times Magazine expose. In 2014, a story began to trend on Twitter about a toxic plume supposedly released by a chemical factory in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana. Thousands of fake twitter accounts began tweeting en masse about the supposed toxic chemical release, forcing journalists and even Homeland Security to investigate.
In St. Mary Parish, Duval Arthur quickly made a few calls and found that none of his employees had sent the alert. He called Columbian Chemicals, which reported no problems at the plant. Roughly two hours after the first text message was sent, the company put out a news release, explaining that reports of an explosion were false. When I called Arthur a few months later, he dismissed the incident as a tasteless prank, timed to the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Personally I think it’s just a real sad, sick sense of humor,” he told me. “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, “had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck.” (The F.B.I. told me the investigation was still open.)
The Columbian Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention. The perpetrators didn’t just doctor screenshots from CNN; they also created fully functional clones of the websites of Louisiana TV stations and newspapers. The YouTube video of the man watching TV had been tailor-made for the project. A Wikipedia page was even created for the Columbian Chemicals disaster, which cited the fake YouTube video. As the virtual assault unfolded, it was complemented by text messages to actual residents in St. Mary Parish. It must have taken a team of programmers and content producers to pull off.
As Chen reported, that wasn’t the only information warfare attack. There were many others. But it well illustrates how the influence of social media can be warped to disseminate false information, confusing and frightening the public while forcing public officials to untangle a web of lies. Mix lies with truth and one can sow discord and plant the seeds of public distrust in news outlets and statements by government officials.
But those are are merely irritating skirmishes. If one is to believe Putin’s advisor Alexander Dugin, the real goal is far more insidious.
Alexander Dugin: Putin’s Brain
The strategy and ideological philosophy behind these tactics is what’s really disturbing.
But first a little history. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of Russia’s geopolitical power throughout the eastern region, the nation floundered under its first president Boris Yeltsin. The nation needed a new ideological and social foundation and in the later years of Yeltsin’s presidency he assigned a committee to search for one. They failed.
In this time, Alexander Dugin slowly rose to prominence after having published Foundations of Geopolitics in the mid 1990s. After Vladimir Putin won the Russian Presidential election in 2000, his ideas slowly gained prominence until he’d attracted Putin’s ear.
John Rice-Cameron, writing for the Stanford Political Journal, calls Dugin’s philosophy The New Fascism. And he is now one of the most powerful men in Russia.
Unknown to most, Dugin is one of Russia’s most powerful men, sometimes referred to as “Putin’s brain.” Dugin likely became a potent political force due to his role in the nationalist think tank, the Izborskij Club, which was founded in 2012. He and his followers hold powerful positions at the highest levels of Russia’s government: Dugin is an advisor to the State Duma Chairman, and Dugin’s protege, Ivan Demidov, is on the Ideology Directorate of Putin’s United Russia Party.
By asserting Russian dominion over neighboring states, Dugin believes that Russia can fulfill its proper destiny of becoming a civilization, rather than remaining merely a country. Moreover, there is evidence Putin himself has sought to pursue this objective. In May 2014, Putin signed treaties with the governments of Kazakhstan and Belarus, creating the Eurasian EconomicUnion (EEU). While this union does benefit other member states by removing obstacles to labor migration and trade, the effective integration of member states economies into Russia’s increases their dependence on Russia, precisely as Dugin intends. Hence, Putin’s creation of the EEU is very much in line with the Eurasianist vision of integration.
He is blatantly anti-west, blatantly anti-liberal, and blatantly anti-science. Paul Ratner, at Big Think, called him the most dangerous philosopher in the world.
What Dugin proposes instead of what he sees as three dead and dying ideologies is his “Fourth Political Theory“. It would create an entirely alternative political model, set against â€œprogressâ€ of world history as is. It would not be based on the issues of individualism, race or nationalism. He sees this theory to be partially based on the work of the existential German philosopher Martin Heidegger, controversial for his association with Nazism. His philosophy calls for a root of a human being’s self-awareness (called dasein by Heidegger) to be saved in the world, as it has been diluted in the modern space by essentially dehumanizing technology
And speaking to the aspects of anti-science of his ideology, Ratner wrote:
Alexander Dugin … has expressed deeply anti-scientific views, calling for the ban of chemistry and physics. He would also get rid of the Internet.
He argues a rejection of liberal western values and instead has put forth a new ideology he calls “Fourth Political Theory”. Based on the ideas of German philosopher Martin Heidegger, Dugin promotes militant expansion of Russia’s territory and geopolitical reach throughout Europe in a new Pan Eurasian Order, which would necessitate the ultimate destruction of the United States, NATO, and even China.
Unlike western conservatism, based rugged individualism, Dugin’s conservatism demands collectivist fealty to the state above all. Hannah Thornburn, writing in Foreign Affairs [link to reprint], speaks to Dugin’s type of Eastern conservatism.
True to Putin’s insistence that Russia cannot be judged in Western terms, Putin’s new conservatism does not fit U.S. and European definitions. In fact, the main trait they share is opposition to liberalism. Whereas conservatives in those parts of the world are fearful of big government and put the individual first, Russian conservatives advocate for state power and see individuals as serving that state. They draw on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. That strain is authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to todayâ€™s headlines, it is expansionist.
Dugin conceives of Eurasia as being much larger than his predecessors ever did. For example, whereas Savitskii believed that the Russian-Eurasian state should stretch from the Great Wall of China in the east to the Carpathian Mountains to the west, Dugin believes that the Eurasian state must incorporate all of the former Soviet states, members of the socialist block, and perhaps even establish a protectorate over all EU members. In the east, Dugin proposes to go as far as incorporating Manchuria, Xinxiang, Tibet, and Mongolia. He even proposes eventually turning southwest toward the Indian Ocean.
And it appears Putin has begun implementing at least some of Duginâ€™s proposed policies.
Destroying NATO: Western Decline and Russian Ascendence over Pan Eurasia
Dugin’s ideology should be the main lens for analyzing Russia’s overall strategic goals. For he’s the thinker who’s crafted this overall strategy. He’s got Putin’s ear. And he’s written a textbook, Foundations of Geopolitics, that’s taught in Russian military academies to officers in training.
You can’t understand Putin until you understand his advisor’s thinking. And at the book’s core, he promotes the formation of a totalitarian fascist dictatorship across Eurasia and Europe, with Russia and a reformed puppet Germany at the top running everything.
Here’s a scathing academic book review by John Dunlop Dugin posted on his own site, a kind of raised middle finger to the imperial west. The book itself is not available in translation.
Dugin’s militant views on geopolitics, as expressed in his 1997 textbook, will presumably strike Western readers as both crude and mad, representing but a slight improvement over, say, the ravings of Duma deputy speaker Vladimir Zhirinovskii. While Dugin’s ideas and prescriptions are indeed extreme, dangerous and repellent, it should be emphasized that they are very much in the tradition of the writings of inter-war fascists and of adherents of the European Nouvelle Droite. Historically speaking, fascist thought has more than once resulted in explosive expansionism. It should be noted, moreover, that Dugin does not focus primarily upon military means as a way of achieving Russian dominance over Eurasia; rather he advocates a fairly sophisticated program of subversion, destabilization, and disinformation spearheaded by the Russian special services, supported by a tough, hard-headed use of Russia’s gas, oil, and natural resource riches to pressure and bully other countries into bending to Russia’s will. While Dugin, apparently, does not in the least fear war, he would prefer to achieve his geopolitical goals without resorting to it.
Drawing on the extensive twentieth century literature on geopolitics – and especially on the inter-war German school of Karl Haushofer – Dugin posits a primordial, dualistic conflict between ‘Atlanticism’ (sea-faring states and civilizations, such as the United States and Britain) and ‘Eurasianism’ (land-based states and civilizations such as Eurasia-Russia).44 As Wayne Allensworth has noted, once one penetrates below the surface of Dugin’s seemingly rational and scholarly language in Foundations of Geopolitics, one becomes aware that Dugin’s geopolitics are mystical and occult in nature, the shape of world civilizations and the clashing vectors of historical development being portrayed as shaped by unseen spiritual forces beyond man’s comprehension. In Dugin’s treatise, as Allensworth underscores, the author has appropriated almost wholesale the idea of Belgian geopolitician Jean Thiriart, who recognized the Russified Soviet Union as the final bastion of civilization in a Europe overrun by rootless American consumerism. Thiriart had earlier advocated the formation of a new Holy Alliance of the USSR and Europe aimed at constructing a Euro-Soviet Empire, which would stretch from Vladivostok to Dublin and would also need to expand to the south, since it required a port on the Indian Ocean.
But the United States and NATO stand in his way of achieving these goals. So the United States and NATO is to him the primary enemy of Russia and its strategic goals..
At the basis of the geopolitical construction of this [Eurasian] Empire, Dugin writes, “there must be placed one fundamental principle,” the principle of a common enemy. A negation of Atlanticism, a repudiation of the strategic control of the United States, and the rejection of the supremacy of economic, liberal market values “this represents the common civilizational basis, the common impulse which will prepare the way for a strong political and strategic union.
One way in which Russia will be able to effect a turning of other states against Atlanticism will be an astute use of the country’s raw material riches. In the beginning stage [of the struggle against Atlanticism], Dugin writes, “Russia can offer its potential partners in the East and West its resources as compensation for exacerbating their relations with the U.S.” (p. 276). In order to induce the Anaconda to release its grip on the coastline of Eurasia, it must be relentlessly attacked on its home territory, within its own hemisphere, and throughout Eurasia. “All levels of geopolitical pressure,” Dugin insists, “must be activated simultaneously” (p.367).
As this plan unfold, the world will be carved up into three areas of influence by forging pacts with Germany, Japan, and Iran. In Germany, Dugin foresees:
…Germany, Dugin proposes, ought to be given back “Kaliningrad oblast” (Eastern Prussia) (p. 228). As a result of a Grand Alliance concluded between Russia and Germany, the two countries will divvy up into de facto spheres of dominance the territories lying between them. There is to be no “sanitary cordon”. The task of Eurasia, Dugin emphasizes, “consists in making sure such a [sanitary] cordon does not exist.” (p. 370). Russia and Germany together, he insists, “must decide all disputed questions together and in advance…” (p. 226).
Japan would be offered an “Imperial grand bargain” with
…the Kuriles restored to Japan as Kaliningrad is to be restored to Germany (p. 238). For future expansion purposes, Japan is to be encouraged to impose its own “new order,” which it planned to carry out in the 1930’s, in the Pacific Ocean. (p. 277).
India will be offered another bargain, India, “to contain and perhaps dismember China.” Because Dugin views China as the one great threat to Russia’s expansionist plans.
Tibet-Sinkiang-Mongolia-Manchuria taken together comprise a security belt of Russia. (p. 363). Eurasia-Russia must seek at all costs to promote “the territorial disintegration, splintering and the political and administrative partition of the [Chinese] state.” (p. 360). “Without Sinkiang and Tibet,” he concludes, “the potential geopolitical breakthrough of China into Kazakhstan and Siberia becomes impossible.” (p. 362).
In other words, he’d like to Balkanize China by splitting it into multiple states, thereby defanging Beijing.
Finally, he has plans for Iran, which he views as central to the overall strategy.
The most ambitious and complex part of Dugin’s program concerns the South, where the focal point is a Moscow-Teheran axis. “The idea of a continental Russian-Islamic alliance,” he writes, “lies at the foundation of anti-Atlanticist strategy. [T]his alliance is based on the traditional character of Russian and Islamic civilization.” (p. 158). “On the whole,” he continues, “the entire Islamic zone represents a naturally friendly geopolitical reality in relation to the Eurasian Empire, since the Islamic tradition fully understands the spiritual incompatibility of America and religion. The Atlanticists themselves see the Islamic world, on the whole, as their potential opponent.” (p. 239).
As the result of an especially broad Grand Alliance to be concluded with Iran, Eurasia- Russia, Dugin maintains, will enjoy the prospect of realizing a centuries-old Russian dream and finally reaching the “warm seas” of the Indian Ocean. “In relation to the South,” he writes, “the geopolitical axis of history [Russia] has only one imperative – geopolitical expansion to the shores of the Indian Ocean.” (p. 341). “Having received geopolitical access in the first place, naval bases on the Iranian shores,” he writes, “Eurasia will enjoy full security from the strategy of the Anaconda ring.” (p. 241). Eurasia-Russia and the Empire of Iran, he emphasizes, will have “one and the same geopolitical tendency.” (p. 242).
But unlike Hitler, Dugin prefers force projection not by military means but by covert propaganda. And that’s where Russia’s international election influence campaign, propaganda efforts, and online trolls come in.
Within the United States itself, there is a need for the Russian special services and their allies “to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States (it is possible to make use of the political forces of Afro-American racists)” (p. 248). “It is especially important,” Dugin adds, “to introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements, extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”(p. 367).
Sounds insane, doesn’t it? Like some absurd fantasy, born by dreams of a madman. It would be the carving up of the world similar to what was planned by Hitler in Third Reich Germany. But as has been seen time and again in the past, sometimes madmen gain political power. And this madman has the ear of the man who controls Russia’s formidable army and nuclear weapons.
Dugin has Fans in the United States
Among many alt-right white supremacists in the United States, Dugin is viewed as a hero.
Richard Spencer is a self-avowed American neonazi who founded the white nationalist think tank the National Policy Institute. He also runs the website alternativeright.com, where Spencer offered Dugin a platform to express his views.
As Bertrand wrote:
The webzine Spencer founded in 2010 – called Alternative Right – accepted contributor pieces from Aleksandr Dugin, the far-right, ultra-nationalist politician who encouraged Putin’s incursion into Ukraine and whose work has been translated into English by Byzantina on her blog. (It does have a caveat: “The views of the original author do not necessarily reflect those of the translator.”)
Spencer has also spoken Trump in glowing terms. And there’s been reciprocation in kind when alt-right Brietbart News termed Spencer as among the alt-right’s “leading intellectuals”. At the time, the publication was run by Trump’s Chief Strategist, Billionaire Steve Bannon, the man who now sits on the National Security Council after Trump removed the Joint Chiefs and Director of Intelligence.
In fact, on the day of Trump’s electoral win, as reported by The Atlantic, Spencer was so enthusiastic by Trump’s victory, he called out “Hail Trump!” at a speech as some in the audience gave a Nazi salute.
Spencer’s not the only alt-right supporter of Dugin and Russian global ascendency. Natasha Bertrand, writing for Business Insider, interviewed Matthew Heimbach, a speaker at the Stormfront Smokey Mountain conference in 2013.
“I really believe that Russia is the leader of the free world right now,” Heimbach told Business Insider in a recent interview. “Putin is supporting nationalists around the world and building an anti-globalist alliance, while promoting traditional values and self-determination.”
Heimbach described the US’ current foreign policy as aggressive and imperialistic, and he criticized NATO’s military buildup in eastern Europe as an example of how the US is trying to promote a “global conflict” with Russia.
Alexander Dugin’s anti-American and anti-NATO ideology is thus praised by an extreme faction of America’s neo-nazi alt-right thinkers. And Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, has published praise of one of Dugin’s adherents as among the leading alt-right’s intellectuals.
Give pause? It should. Because their trolling strategy is in effect not just in the United States, but throughout the western world across Europe too.
Russia’s Destabilization Program in the Heart of NATO: UK, France, and Austria
Russian interference is not just limited to the United States. This is a multi-pronged effort aimed at destabilizing nations throughout Europe, ultimately targeting the dissolution of NATO. It’s a combined propaganda attack to disrupt normal mechanisms of governance, either to promote political chaos within a target nation or – better yet – promote the election of fascist leaders who would work in support of Russian interests.
During the run up to Great Britain’s Brexit referendum, there were reports of Russian trolls interfering with a propaganda campaign. Leading Newsweek’s Caroline Baylon to wonder if the vote outcome had been legitimate:
Reports suggested that Russia used its vast intelligence apparatus during the run up to the U.K’s June referendum on EU membership in favor of the winning “leave” vote. Both RT and Sputnik, English-language news outlets which receive funding from the Kremlin, produced often misleading news coverage that tallied with the campaign urging voters to leave the EU.
Russia is also believed to have leveraged its “troll army” individuals paid by the Kremlin to produce and promote fake social media content to focus on messaging around the referendum campaign.
The Brexit leave vote fits with Russia’s goal of weakening the EU, which it has eyed warily as former Eastern Bloc countries have flocked to join. The U.K.’s withdrawal will leave the EU without one of the three largest economic and military powers in Europe.
In France, far right leader Marine Le Penn is on course to win election in France. This, just as the French government has warned Russia against interfering.
The pledge by Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault followed complaints by the party of election frontrunner Emmanuel Macron that his campaign was the target of ‘fake news’ put out by Russian media, as well as internet attacks on its databases.
And in Austria, far right leader Heinz-Christian Strauche just signed a pact with Putin. Curiously, he also met with Michael Flynn before the Foreign Policy advisor’s resignation.
in Turkey, relations between Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan have warmed to the point where some in the press are asking if he’s Putin’s puppet.
And though Israel is not in NATO, it remains a core middle-eastern ally. It’s not clear if Russia has engaged in election interference. However, Benjamin Netanyahu in negotiations with Trump, just achieved a major victory to essentially annex the Palestinian territories when the President agreed to a single state solution. It should be noted that Netanyahu is under investigation in a corruption probe for bribery.
Finally, the latest news broken by The New York Times, in which Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen negotiated with Russia an exchange of Ukraine for lifting sanctions. Cohen, it should be noted, was alleged in the Steele dossier to have met with Russian officials in Prague, which he vociferously denied. Now it turns out meetings were ongoing and elsewhere. Further, Cohen appears to have given Russia carte blanche to install a Putin friendly President in Ukraine in exchange for the gift of also lifting sanctions, presumably so US oil companies could profit.
Taken separately, these events might seem individual setbacks to US and NATO interests. But taken together, as a whole, especially in view of Dugin’s words, it looks like Russia has already achieved a significant victory down the path toward its Eurasian and European expansionist goals.
They’ve got friends running the Executive Branch of the United States government. In fact, the Trump’s administration just warned NATO the United States will not continue with financial support unless Europe ponies up more money. While also warning Brussels the United States will end the NATO pact unless Europe stops plans for developing its own military defense force.
They’ve broken the UK off from Europe. They may well win France in short order. And are actively trying to prevent Europe from forming their own standing army to defend against potential incursions. How long can NATO and the European Union last with the US and certain European governments openly hostile to sustaining the alliance and Europe’s self defense?
Russia would like to find out.
Have a Slice of Pizza with Putin’s Political Purge
As that War On the Rocks blog post on Russian trolling noted, a central goal of the influence campaign is to damage legitimate democratic governance and its institutions. Conspiracy theories are disseminated with the intent of underminding citizen confidence, fomenting and exasperating divisive political fractures, and eroding trust between citizens and elected officials.
Right now, the most pernicious conspiracy theory being actively disseminated is Pizzagate. This is the conspiracy theory that Democratic strategist John Podesta and former candidate Hillary Clinton are ensnared in a pedophilia scandal with pizza shop owner James Alefantis, the former boyfriend of Media Matters founder David Brock.
It came about when members of the 4chan /pol (Politically Incorrect) forum posted what they saw as a relationship between certain “code words” for pedophilia and emails released in the Wikileaks’ john Podesta dump. It then grew to associations with associated business logos thought to be similar to imagery the FBI had connected to known pedophilia rings. And photographs of kids at his pizza shop Alefantis had posted to his instagram account. And continued to claims of a baby kill room in the storeâ€™s basement. And that the Podesta’s liking for “satanic artwork” by internationally renowned Serbian artist Marina Abramovic shows their predilection for young boys. And on and on and on.
I won’t link to any of this stuff because it’s easily found anyway, and as the New York Times in its expose on pizzgate noted, it’s all bullshit. The Times provides a decent enough summary anyway.
The allegations are lurid. Ridiculous even. But their effect could be anything but ridiculous. It could be extremely dangerous. Yet some former high ranking members of the State Department and Intelligence Community are supportive.
Former Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of State under Kissinger Steve Pieczenick has been claiming that the Clintons are connected to a pedophilia ring [Youtube Video not embedded]. Interestingly, he’s a Psychiatrist with extensive military intelligence experience in PsyOps – or, military psychological operations. Of which, trolling campaigns can be considered among them. Like Steele, he’s been calling for a “gutting of the deep state”. Essentially, a revolution on American soil.
And Former Clandestine CIA agent Robert Steele recently stated on Alex Jones conspiracy television program InfoWars that Michael Flynn was actually fired for revealing a DC pedophilia ring [Youtube Video not embedded] in his call to the Russian Ambassador, and that one of the names on the list was a close friend and associate of Vice President Mike Pence. He has claimed pedophilia is widespread throughout DC across both political parties. And has called for Trump to begin an investigation that he says would would lead to hundreds of arrests across elected officials and the deep state.
The relationship between Pizzagate, Alex Jones, and violence has already been established. In early December, just as the Conspiracy Theory was gaining traction, Edgar Maddison Welch entered Alefantis’ pizzeria armed with an assault rifle. According to him, he’d planned to force Alefantis or staff to show him the supposed basement kill room at gunpoint, which he’d then film and release as proof. But, in fact, there was no basement at that location.
When police arrived he immediately surrendered and has now been charged with multiple felonies. He’s also since publicly disavowed Pizzagate. To which adherents of the conspiracy theory now call his action – without any sense of irony – a False Flag. And have moved on to claiming the kill room is in another location.
As Mother Jones noted, Welch was an avowed viewer and reader of Alex Jones. The conspiracy theory mogul has significant audience, with many alt-right conspiracy theorists. He’s central to an overarching system of disseminating Real Fake NewsTM. Which I argue should be considered the new term for “fake news”, ever since Donald Trump expropriated it to call The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post and any other press outlet that conforms to standard journalism practices “Fake News”. But I digress.
The Real Fake NewsTM Propaganda Dissemination Cycle
Alex Jones has used his forum to amplify many false conspiracy theories originating in the depths of 4chan that serve to either undermine the legitimacy of government or incite mass harassment campaigns against political opponents, almost all in favor of Russian geopolitical or social policy interests. These then made their way throughout social media like Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
Two crucial examples which are representative include:
- The Boston Bombing Conspiracy Theory. After the wake of the 2013 Boston Bombing Tragedy, 4chan trolls put together a series of infographics that purported to show the FBI and private security firm Craft having actually placed the bomb, in a false flag attack. Snopes has a synopsis of the various false claims.
- Gamergate. This was an organized harassment campaign directed against a little known female game developer Zoe Quinn, who’d had a falling out with an ex-boyfriend. The ex then published email correspondence that suggested she’d had a private relationship with a game journalist. It expanded to include gamer feminist activist and Youtuber, Anita Sarkisian. Which resulted in a constant flow of harassment, including death threats, rape threats, harassing calls to both women and their family members. All supposedly in the name of “Ethics in Journalism”. The Washington Post has a good roundup.
There have been plenty of others, including a slew of Sandy Hook conspiracy theories arguing the event never actually took place. Or that the colorado shooting at a movie theatre showing the Dark Knight Rises was also staged. And that the Orlando shooting at the Pulse nightclub was also staged. All of these supposedly having been false flags. They weren’t. But what connects them is that the conspiracy theories about them began on 4chan, were amplified by Alex Jones, and then spread out through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit.
And in the wake of revelations about systemic Russian trolling, I don’t think this was organic.
The propaganda cycle works like this:
4chan is a primary recruiting ground for alt-right white nationalists of each nation. This is where what they call PolOps (Political Operations) begin. A story is formed on 4chan to let members know what message and its framing will be disseminated.
Fake content is then professionally produced, designed to cause social division and distrust in institutions of government and the press. It winds up as blog posts, Youtube videos, or even in semi-national alt-right news outlets like Brietbart and Alex Jones.
A troll farm then uses “persona management software” to control tens or hundreds of fake sockpuppet accounts per member, running through VPNs to hacked PCs with unique and undetectable IP addresses to circumvent anti-brigading tools on social media platforms.
Working internationally, they coordinate in real time over IRC or Discord (a chat service) to submit and Vote Up or Like or Thumbs Up this fake material on Reddit, Facebook, Youtube, and anywhere that has large audience potential. Gaming the social media system to thereby give a false impression of popularity.
Stories that successfully gain notoriety they then jealously protect on those forums, defending the content’s reputation by mass downvoting or censoring any dissenting view in those forum spaces where they’ve delivered the content. Thereby creating the impression that every commenter agrees with the content. So any casual reader might be persuaded into thinking the values and beliefs presented are perfectly normal – manipulating the human penchant for confirmation bias.
Reddit bills itself as “The Front Page of the Internet.” It’s the 7th most popular website in the United States and the 23rd most popular in the world. Unlike Facebook and Twitter, which hires moderators and sets site wide content policy, on Reddit moderation is handled by volunteers who are given total control over content policy (other than violations of law, harassment, or release of personal information). There, trolls have the additional opportunity of infiltrating a subReddit forum moderation team to overthrow it. And take that opportunity they do.
Organized alt-right political trolls will target mid-range subreddits of a few hundred thousand followers and take over moderation. Then mercilessly control content, warping it to promote only alt-right messaging. Combined with persona management upvoting, and good timing, they can barrage a story with fake upvotes right after submission, with the hope of driving the content to Reddit’s front page where millions of non-logged in casual readers will see it. A propaganda bonanza for state sponsored influence operations.
If one is to take claims of troll influence operations throughout Europe seriously, these machinations are going on anywhere Russia’s intelligence community thinks they can disrupt a NATO member state’s population. To hopefully sow political dissent and discord, perhaps even cleave off enough voters to tip an election in their favor. Which is exactly what happened in Brexit and in the United States with Trump. And may well happen with Le Penn in France.
It’s my contention that conspiracy theories like the Boston Bombing claims, Gamergate, and others were trial runs. Pizzagate is this tactic used operationally to incite a law enforcement witch hunt against political opponents who hold elected office or in high levels of government. Anyone who might thwart their ultimate aim.
Pizzagate isn’t real. But a threat to the entire political system from it certainly is.
As has been shown, Pizzagate is a direct assault on all elected officials, not just the Democratic Party. The claims have spread from targeting Democratic Party members to Republicans, general government staffers, and even some journalists as well. According to the theory, just about anyone and everyone is a pedophile.
What’s important here is that if the organizers of the Pizzagate troll were partisan, they’d focus just on Democrats. But they don’t. This is a smear against the entire US government itself with allegations crimes so heinous were they believed it would almost necessitate supporting open revolution.
It’s unclear whether the Trump Administration and his new Attorney General Jeff Sessions plan to use Pizzagate allegations to their advantage. But many in the alt-right community certain hope that will be the case.
If so, does that not look rather suspiciously like a political purge?
The United States is in Limbo, Paralyzed by Constitutional Crisis
It’s no secret Putin preferred Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US election. In fact, US intelligence intercepts caught Russians cheering after Trump’s win.
By electing Trump, Russia has successfully ensnared the United States in an ongoing constitutional crisis. They’ve paralyzed the nation. Caused discord with its primary allies. And thereby threaten the survival of the NATO alliance itself. All without firing a single shot.
And I’m not sure if leaders in the US military and Intelligence Communities really see the danger of continued inaction against what should properly be seen as fomenting a Trotskyite insurgency operating in the US and its closest allies, supported by Russian propaganda operations.
If there were a serious geopolitical crisis with Russia in the short term – say an invasion of Ukraine or Georgia or even into Balkan states all the way down into Serbia – is it reasonable to believe the incompetent and reckless Trump administration would be capable of acting decisively in the national and NATO interest?
I don’t think so.
This is not a partisan problem. It’s not about some internal political squabble between Democrats and Republicans. I must conclude what’s happening here represents a genuine existential threat to the United States of America and our alliance with entire western hemisphere.
And I have no idea how to right the ship of state in order to deal with this. But deal with it America and the west must.