The Information War: Putin’s efforts to destroy democracy by turning us into cannibals
Ever since Trump got elected in November, I wanted to write an elaborate essay on him, his politics, and (alleged) election fraud. However, since then, developments happened so fast, that anything I wrote would be dated the next day. I have bookmarked dozens of topics I want to address, making it hard for me to wrap my head around the sheer stupidity and maliciousness that is the, by now, inaugurated Trump administration. From Donald Trump’s Russian connection, to Rex Tillerson’s (former head of Exxon Mobil) Antarctic connection. From Tom Pryce’s insider-trading of pharmaceutical stocks to Betsy DeVos paying to play. Or even the six appointed with direct ties to Goldman Sachs. But what I’m about to write about is too important, too widespread and all-affecting to leave unfinished. Yes, it may verge on ‘conspiracy theory’-territory, but bear with me. I will explain everything to the fullest detail, using sources to construct my case. Keep an open mind while reading, and tell me what you think when you’re done.
The topic at hand-made an explosive entry into international politics during the Crimea War in 2014, but the foundations for which were laid the decade before. The first piece of the puzzle came when Vladimir Putin was ‘elected’ president of Russia. He was first appointed Prime Minister in August of 1999, and was promptly promoted to President on the 31st of December of the same year, after Boris Yeltsin resigned. Putin, an ex-KGB officer in the Soviet-era, used Russia’s turmoil following the fall of the USSR to quickly climb the political ladder. In doing so, he wasn’t afraid to implement tactics learned with the KGB. For an in-depth view of Putin’s rise to power, there are multiple documentaries available such as this one by the BBC, or (if you have a Netflix account) look for the French documentary ‘Putin’s Hidden Treasure’. They all paint the same picture of Putin: a power-hungry maniac for whom the Cold War never ended. A mobster boss pretending to be a politician. A dictator feigning democracy.
The next piece of the puzzle came in 2005, when Putin launched RT’s (Russia Today, state funded news organization) International division providing global news, much like BBC World, Al Jazeera and CNN. At first, RT established itself as a somewhat reliable news source. It especially gained favourability with people sceptical of US media, a topic I wrote about in 2012. Since ‘mainstream media’ (or MSM) seemed to be in cahoots with large companies and their financial interests, many started seeing RT as a legitimate alternative. This was further emphasized by RT giving Wikileaks-founder Julian Assange his own talk show called ”World Tomorrow“.
Parallel to RT gaining perceived legitimacy, they started applying more and more selection bias. While a gatekeeping bias is inherent to the subjective views of each journalist, RT’s selection bias is a deliberate act of filtering information. However, RT’s goal was never to show the world how great Russia is – that is too obvious to poke through. Instead, their bias is aimed at creating distrust in the United States of America. Distrust against politicians, against the media, and distrust of your neighbour.
Surkov and Hypernormalisation
Putin doesn’t do this alone – enter Vladislav Surkov, his personal adviser (since 2013). The above video by Adam Curtis gives a good introduction to his persona. Surkov is one of the minds behind what the Russians call the informatsionnaya voyna, the “Information War”. While Western style information warfare directly targets enemies in times of war, Russian information warfare is all-encompassing and persistent outside of wartime. Or, as a publication from NATO puts it:
[…] the Russian approach is much broader than simply sowing lies and denial, for instance maintaining that Russian troops and equipment are not where they plainly are. Instead, Russian state and non-state actors have exploited history, culture, language, nationalism and more to carry out cyber-enhanced disinformation campaigns with much wider objectives (NATO, 2016: p.2)
The information war is not aimed at selling Russia, but at “undermining the notion of objective truth and reporting being possible at all” (p.6). Enter Hypernormalisation, a term coined by documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. Within hypernormalisation, audiences are being bombarded with so many conflicting narratives to the point they give up trying to discern the objective truth behind the facade. While RT is a good tool for this, current information warfare runs much deeper. It uses social media such as facebook or reddit to spread blogs with falsified information, dictated by the Kremlin. These acts are done through ‘troll factories’, working 24/7 to dictate online narratives.
They, the trolls, operate by first creating believable persona’s, and then cashing in on this credibility by writing a fiery political post. Or, when someone criticizes Putin, they deflect (…but her emails!) or write an ad hominem at the original poster. They create an environment wherein it is impossible to have a normal discussion about topics unfavourable of Putin or Russia. And, because all of this (except the total scale in which this is used) is semi-public knowledge, it creates a level of distrust among commenters. Because that one username claiming to live in Canada and having an established background going back multiple years confirming as much, might actually be a troll in Moscow juggling over twenty reddit accounts.
Destabilization through Polarization
In Judo, the aim is to use the opponents strength and momentum against him by pulling him towards you to make him fall. Putin is a large fan of the martial art, even having published a book on the sport which was sent to millions of Russian children. Everything above can be seen as using this basic premise of Judo and applying it to international politics. Putin is tugging at the sleeve of Western sanity to make democracy implode and self-destruct. It uses the momentum of opposing groups to make them collide. Democracy relies on cooperation, on working together. If democracy is unable to cooperate, it is unable to function and move forward. This will, in time, creating feelings of resentment towards politicians. As the above video illustrates, maintaining this disgruntlement has long been a KGB goal, which Putin perpetuates. A research titled “How Partisan conflict in Congress affects public opinion: strategies, outcomes, and issue differences” conducted by DJ Flynn and Laurel Harbridge and published by American Politics Research in 2016 found that (in the US) people in most cases favour a win for the opposing political party over political gridlock and the resulting inaction on pressing matters.
In this context, Donald Trump was a useful tool for the Russians. While they might not have supported his bid for the Republican ticket from the start, the realization must have come quickly after he started spewing his hateful and polarizing rhetoric. Russian support did not come in financial contributions which can be easily tracked down to the Kremlin, but came more covert. As might have become clear by the picture I was painting earlier, the information war never clearly states where it is applicable, while creating enough doubt in order to create paranoia. The hacking of the DNC and subsequent leaking of internal communication is a clear example of that. Another, less clear example, is the subreddit dedicated to the by now President, ‘The_Donald’.
The subreddit gained enormous momentum after it became clear Clinton would win the Democratic nomination. It’s unbelievable growth in size is accompanied by remarkable user statistics, activity by unique visitors is about triple of a normal active subreddit. Furthermore, my content analysis conducted in March and April of 2016 found that certain users were abnormally featured on the most popular pages of the subreddit compared to other political subreddits. It is clear that something is off about the subreddit, and I’m not talking about the level of fanaticism of most of the content. While it won’t entirely be made up from trolls working together to create the narrative, seeding it with sufficient ‘shills’ (paid operatives) will create an environment in which disgruntled users feel open to preach their discontent. By the trolls showing them it is okay, even encouraged, to be racist or hateful towards certain targets, they will open their floodgates under the guise of crusading against political correctness. Putin tugs at he sleeve of dormant fanatics, awaking them to their extremist views.
Trump’s expiration date
Now that Trump is elected, his usability is limited to Putin. Once Tillerson is confirmed, it is likely the trade sanctions against Russia will be lifted. Unless new situations arise, Putin will probably move the target of his information warfare on Trump. Once Putin has nothing more to gain from the Trump presidency, his troll army will work to undermine the legitimacy of his presidency to further destabilize the democratic process through polarizing the (online) narrative even further. Especially since Putin made a miscalculation: both the House of Representatives and the Senate are now majority Republican, meaning that in theory Trump can push any piece of legislation he wants without much opposition. He has to actively undermine Trump and create doubts within the Republican ranks in order to maintain the gridlock that prevented Obama’s administration from achieving legislative successes. Just as with Trump, he won’t be buying politicians. Instead, he’ll control the flow of information. He will create just enough doubt over the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency in order to trigger a few Republicans into aligning with Democratic representatives.
Having Clinton win the election would stabilize democratic power, and form a continuation of Obama’s policies. For Putin, this would be bad. Not only because of the imposed trade sanctions which would be maintained, but it would also have countered his efforts of destabilizing the center of power in the US directly. Instead, Trump has already set new unfavourability records not even two weeks into his Presidency. His administration is doing a great job dismantling the government, under Trump’s own Surkov – Stephen K. Bannon. I will not delve into this topic for now, since that would double the length of this already lengthy essay.
On the topic of online narratives – and here is what actually prompted me to follow through for once on writing this essay – I already see the initial start of Putin’s anti-Trump propaganda happening. Numerous subreddits have been trending lately aimed against Trump. One of those, called MarchAgainstTrump, messed up. They invited moderators with ties to Donald Trump’s subreddit and when asked for clarification, tried to cover it up. Furthermore, the majority of the posts on the subreddit follow the same script as those on The_Donald, with the exception that it is aimed at Trump this time. Other subreddits I remain wary of are ‘TrumpForPrison‘ (since most posters are either new accounts, or suddenly active but previously inactive old accounts) and ‘Trumpgret‘. I am not saying these are fronts for Russian trolls, but are vulnerable to outsider influence so I advise you to remain critical. Don’t let Putin’s troll army manipulate you into becoming their next puppet, to polarize society even further.
This might sound like a call to align with Trump to spite Putin. While yes, if Trump were a succesful president, this would indeed infuriate Putin. However, Trump lacks the moral and mental aptitude to become a succesful President. The goal of this essay is to resist Trump, while at the same time I warn you to stay rational, and think critical. Don’t fall for the same pitfalls the Republicans fell for. Prepare for the 2020 elections. Get a progressive candidate, like Sanders, but one who is able to unite more conservative members of the democratic party. The universal hatred for Trump, by then, will be enough to make the staunchest of Republican supporters vote against the GOP.
Don’t let the hand that greets you pull you over.
Don’t get pulled into Putin’s narrative.
Don’t give in to hatred.
I’d like to end with a quote, which Putin seems to have taken to heart, from Macchiavelli’s The Art of War (1520):
A Captain ought, among all the other actions of his, endeavor with every art to divide the forces of the enemy, either by making him suspicious of his men in whom he trusted, or by giving him cause that he has to separate his forces, and, because of this, become weaker.
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Resources, by order of appearance:
- BBC (2016) – Putin’s Secret Riches (documentary)
- NewOnNetflix (2016) – Putin’s Hidden Treasures (website)
- FelixDicit (2012) – The Fourth Power: Media (article)
- Der Spiegel (2013) – Putin’s weapons in the War of Images (article)
- Wikipedia (2017) – World Tomorrow (article)
- NATO (2016) – The Next Phase of Russian Information Warfare (article)
- The Guardian (2016) – Salutin’ Putin: inside a Russian troll house (article)
- Reddit (2016) – Russia’s troll village is massively gaming reddit (post)
- The Guardian (2016) – Putin Judo book to be distributed to millions of Russian schoolchildren
- The Washington Post (2017) – Russia’s radical new strategy for information warfare
- Reddit (2017) – The_Donald Traffic Stats (subreddit)
- Reddit (2017) – MarchAgainstTrump (subreddit)
- Reddit (2017) – I’m suspicious of /r/MarchAgainstTrump (post)
- Reddit (2017) – TrumpForPrison (subreddit)
- Reddit (2017) – Trumpgret (subreddit)