“Russian information warfare ops have had one goal ever since the Cold War began: to sow chaos and undermine Americans’ sense of a shared reality. Trump was just a means to that end”
January 8, 2021
As a shirtless, horned man stood at the dais of the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, the words Harvard Law School Prof. Yochai Benkler told Haaretz ahead of the 2020 election sprang to mind. Since the Cold War began, Soviet – and then Russian – information warfare campaigns have never been about pushing out a single message. Prof. Benkler, one of the leading authorities on disinformation online, explained that the primary role of Russian propaganda “is to create a world where nothing is true and everything is possible.”
As the chaotic scenes played out on Capitol Hill, I also recalled what researchers at the Rand Corporation said after completing a massive study into disinformation efforts on Twitter ahead of November’s election: The Russian campaign’s goal was never to push out a coherent, pro-Trump message, but instead to subvert America’s democratic institutions and sow distrust. President Donald Trump was just a means to that end.
We tend to think of disinformation as a social media problem. We also tend to think of it as a new issue. However, research such as Benkler and Rand’s shines a light on the infrastructure of the #StopTheSteal campaign, which morphed into Wednesday’s violent attack on democracy.
Research into disinformation paints a more complex picture, helping us understand the events that led up to the ridiculous yet seemingly sincere bid to prevent the formation of a democratically elected U.S. government.
It also helps explain why Trump’s attempts to send his saboteurs “home” – or Facebook and Twitter’s decisions to remove his “call-to-arms” videos – failed to be as potent as the lies he propagated through social media in the previous months.
The fraud that led to a coalition of far-right conspiracy theorists besieging the Capitol was one founded on a baseless, thoroughly debunked and intentionally distorted perception of the election.
Benkler’s study, conducted by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, actually focused on disinformation about the U.S. presidential election’s integrity – the purported justification for the Trumpists’ assault on the legislature that was voting to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Titled “Mail-In Voter Fraud: Anatomy of a Disinformation Campaign” and published in early October, it found Trump’s efforts to cast doubt on the validity of the voting process to be “the central disinformation campaign of this election.”
That campaign, Benkler explained, was specifically designed to “raise doubts about the validity”
of vote counts, and the goal was “generally to raise questions about the election’s legitimacy.”
The fact that such claims were given front-page coverage – even in The New York Times and other outlets that toiled to debunk them – gave them a credibility that Russian President Vladimir Putin could only dream of.
“They only win if we retell their story as if it’s true,” Benkler told Haaretz last autumn. Yet retell it the U.S. president did: ahead of the election, on Election Day itself, and in the subsequent months following his defeat. But other stories were also told.
The Rand study, led by former marine-turned-social scientist William Marcellino, focused on online foreign interference in the 2020 election. It mapped out the different networks of Russian bots active on Twitter. More importantly, the study provided a small glimpse into the actual content different U.S. political groups were being targeted with.
“The pro-Trump troll camp could actually have been labeled the pro-QAnon camp,” Marcellino explained. “It’s always the same type of story: Someone has some devastating information that would help Trump take down the swamp or deep state, but someone – usually the Jews or the media – is preventing them from making the information public.”
After the election, with swamp-draining information no longer a viable political flag to rally around, the talk online increasingly shifted to the coming “storm” – and storm the capital its proponents eventually did. But they were not alone.
This conspiratorial logic, the Rand researchers found, was a particularly viral idea. As a theme, it was disproportionately used in the Russia campaign to target the U.S. right and far right, extending well beyond QAnon. However, this logic was also used with far-left voters by, ironically, enhancing conspiratorial claims that Trump was Putin’s puppet, that the Kremlin had compromising material on the U.S. president, and that Trump colluded with Moscow to steal the election from Hillary Clinton in 2016.
As Marcellino put it at the time, “This is how [the Russians] undermine America’s democracy – by fostering mutual distrust and polarization that will keep us so busy that we won’t have time to focus on them and what they’re doing to us.”
It’s not the first time such parallelism has been employed. Emails leaked online in 2016 that were purportedly from Putin’s adviser and chief ideological spin doctor Vladislav Surkov revealed a similar plan to foment chaos in Ukraine. According to the so-called Surkov leak, the Russians planned to “support both nationalist and separatist politicians, and to encourage early parliamentary elections in Ukraine, all with the aim of undermining the government in Kyiv.”
The tactic of pushing contradictory forces as well as disinformation campaigns was also seen in Georgia and, more recently, Belarus.
Benkler’s report caused a minor storm by defying the conventional wisdom regarding fake news and social media, claiming that Trump, his GOP surrogates and the network of far-right media outlets serving as their mouthpieces were actually the main sources of disinformation. They created an ecosystem of lies, of which social media was but one small facet, he observed. The Russians, both offline and online, were merely amplifying them.
“I’m not a Russia expert, but everything I’ve read from what I consider to be good work on Russian propaganda suggests that its primary role is to get us not to trust anything anymore,” Benkler told Haaretz.
In the United States, this tactic tapped into what another group of Rand researchers called “truth decay.” This is the social process in which the question of what constitutes a fact is politicized, its distinction from opinion becomes blurred, and trusted institutions of truth are rendered obsolete – a process certainly aided by social media, and more so by Trump, but also extending far beyond it into the wider media ecosystem and back in time.
“From the perspective of Russian propaganda efforts, if your goal is to disorient your opponents’ population, then nothing is better than the mainstream media saying that we live in a post-truth age,” Benkler said. “There’s only a small segment of American society that actually lives in a post-truth world. But it’s like that because it has been subjected to decades of disinformation and propaganda,” he added, citing Fox News and climate change denial as pre-social media examples.
Russia’s social media campaign ultimately played a marginal role, according to Benkler, but the media was elevating both its importance and its messaging. “The media is taking all the remaining trust and authority it has not yet lost to Putin, and using it to say exactly what he wants” – that Americans no longer have a shared sense of reality, Benkler explained.
All of these facets were on display Wednesday when self-described “proud American nationalists” desecrated one of America’s holiest political sites at one of its most sacred moments.
No matter how hateful, false or inciting tweets may be, it takes more than just 140 or 280 characters to create the conditions necessary for an adult man sporting horns to seriously attempt a raid on the capital of his own country.
Watching him on that dais, with no plan and no shirt, a bewildered look on his face, brings to mind what Trump’s former national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, called the biggest threat to the election – and it wasn’t Russia. Rather, he said last October, “It’s what we’re doing to ourselves. The Russians cannot create these fissures in our society, but they can widen them.”