I was a magazine guy.
After eight years as managing editor of Time, I left by the end of 2013 to become under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. It’s a fancy title, but that job is among the few in Washington that’s tailored for somebody with a media history like me. WHEN I was nominated, some of my co-workers joked that I was today “head of U.S. propaganda,” but I considered myself rather as the chief marketing officer of company America. I figured I’d be spending a lot of my time combating America’s negative picture in the Muslim world-and I did-but then your Russian annexation of Crimea occurred in early on 2014. What I noticed Russia do on the web and in social media around this grave violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty was a revelation to me-and nothing short of a trial work for what they did to control our presidential election in 2016. Few Us citizens realized it back then, but we were already in a worldwide information battle with Russia.
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However, many did know.
On a Saturday morning hours after I’d experienced the job for just two months-about four weeks after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Crimea-I got a call up from the STATE DEPT. operations center saying that they had the secretary at risk. Just it wasn’t Secretary John Kerry, my boss, but ex – Secretary Hillary Clinton. I had known, liked and admired Clinton for years, and I assumed she was calling belatedly to say congratulations. I was wrong. After a perfunctory hello, she launched right into it: We’re getting rid of the information battle with Russia. She urged me to stand up a much more robust and more robust messaging machine to contend with the firehose of Russian propaganda and disinformation that was besmirching America’s picture and undermining democracy all over the world. “They’re applying the old approaches of repeating lies over and over but doing this on 21st century systems,” she said. You must fact-check what they say and expose Russian disinformation instantly, she continued. We must do much more. I remember how she ended the decision: “The STATE DEPT. is still issuing press releases even though Putin is rewriting record.”
She was right.
Then-Secretary of Condition Hillary Clinton checks her notes due to Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) gives his opening remarks during a round table meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in 2012. | Saeed Khan/Getty
But it was still not used to me. Even though I had been in media all my life, it wasn’t until after Crimea that I noticed the power and performance of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the information war, as you U.S. three-star told me, “The Russians have the big battalions.”
It all started out with reports of “little green men” – at least that’s how TV news described the masked men in unmarked uniforms who skulked into Crimea in March 2014.
In fact, these were “Spetsnaz,” Russian specialized operations forces. At that time, Putin vehemently denied these were Russian troops. He claimed these were patriotic local militias defending the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
This, of training course, was an unblinking lie. Within days, Putin had illegally annexed a piece of Ukraine in to the Russian federation and copped to the actual fact that they were certainly Russian soldiers. The White Residence condemned the violation of Crimea’s sovereignty and started out the process of imposing sanctions on Russia. At that time, I imagined that at the minimum we should marshal social media against this historic trespass. Some people produced fun of what they named #hashtag diplomacy, but heck, it had been something. I began tweeting against Putin and Russia’s actions and urged everyone in the STATE DEPT. with a social media account to do the same-“The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of #Ukraine determine their own future.”
Not accurately fire-breathing words. Concurrently, we started a small social media group named the Ukraine Task Force to rebut Russian is based on real time. And then a funny matter happened: I started getting dozens and then a huge selection of tweets calling me a fascist propagandist and a hypocrite and far, much worse. And almost all of them had awful spelling and worse grammar. In addition, there have been tweets from scantily clad little females who, in syntactically challenged English blended with Cyrillic, inquired about my political opinions and breathlessly told me theirs. I received screeds about Russian infants becoming kidnapped in Crimea, unrepentant Nazis who were behind the protests in downtown Kiev, and the way the CIA had developed the AIDS virus.
Then-undersecretary of express for public affairs, Rick Stengel at the ‘Global Coalition Against ISIS, communication performing group’ conference on Kuwait City in 2016. | Yasser Al-Zayyat/Getty
When I published a diplomatic note about the State Department web page accusing Russia of an “intense plan of disinformation” and described Russia Today as “a propaganda bullhorn,” I was attacked on-oxygen by RT and in an editorial by its editor-in-chief accusing me of cramming a large number of falsehoods right into a few hundred words. (You can always tell what the Russians are doing because they accuse you to do a similar thing.) I had never watched RT before, and shortly discovered that it had been an often entertaining mélange of truth and fiction depicting a toxic America riven by corruption and racism featuring specialists without expertise spinning crazy conspiracy stories. RT stories suggested it had been the democratic right of the people of Crimea to be part of Russia and that the U.S. had fomented the color revolutions in Ukraine and the Russian periphery.
I hate to let you know, President Trump, but RT was calling American media fake news long before you did.
All of this was eye-beginning and a lttle bit bewildering, and now appears sadly familiar to Us citizens who saw an identical pattern of data warfare during the 2016 election.
But this is not new for the Russians. The annexation of Crimea, the tender invasion of eastern Ukraine and the cultural media tsunami around these happenings are portion of a long-term KGB military strategy referred to as “active measures”-a bland term for the weaponization of data to achieve strategic goals. The idea dates back to Soviet days, but the modern tools of social media have managed to get far easier and more effective. After all, you don’t have to give spies to plant fake stories in American papers anymore-you can do it yourself from a troll farm in St. Petersburg. In a nutshell, “active measures” seeks to produce a world of “alternative facts.”
But the goal of “active actions” is even grander than influencing an election: It uses disinformation, propaganda and cyberware to weaken the West, foment division in NATO and undermine America’s image all over the world. The cultural media that accompanied Crimea wasn’t so very much to support Russia’s viewpoint, but to sow doubt about anyone understanding what was occurring. Russian digital disinformation can be post-modern: It’s less the propagation of lies compared to the thought that there is no truth. Ultimately, “productive measures” seeks to undermine the very concept of empirical facts.
Last week, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Clint Watts, a ex – FBI officer who’s a specialist on Russian disinformation, said that what Russia did on the subject of social media in 2014 about Ukraine was a “dried out run” for the 2016 election. He named it “capabilities development.” And it had been. They seeded false stories about a 3-year-old ethnic Russian boy crucified by the Ukrainian military, about how Ukrainian bakeries were refusing to market bread to Russian loudspeakers, and the way the new Ukrainian federal government was going to cancel the May 9 World Battle II commemoration and stage a gay pride parade instead. These attempts presaged the internet ecosystem of 2016: Disinformation is introduced on Twitter; it is then included in Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik; those stories are loaded through to YouTube and are then pushed out to sympathetic Facebook communities. At that time, our virtually all senior NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, told me this was “an data blitzkrieg unlike anything in the annals of information warfare.” In military conditions, Russia was planning the information battlefield for 2016.
The a huge selection of Russian advertising recently revealed on Facebook and Google are also types of “active measures.” The advertising, ranging from ones that seem to aid Black Lives Subject and the Black Panthers to ads declaring “The South will surge once again” to the headline, “Satan: EASILY win Clinton Wins!,” match the Russian goal of sowing confusion and question. The Russians like “frozen conflicts”-a term that applies to territorial disputes like eastern Ukraine or Transnistria in Moldova, but could very easily identify the stalemate in Congress, the polarization of American politics, or the debate about Russian “collusion.” It’s these divisions the advertising are meant to exploit. Yes, there are lots that were pro-Trump, however in the early stages of the plan, the advertising were more focused on creating controversy and division than on supporting any one candidate. And that’s the idea-to reveal an America riven by distinct and irreconcilable factors of view, to show contemporary democracy as a dysfunctional mess. What Russian would want to stay in such a society?
As the delivery system for disinformation is quite 21st century, the way Russia uses it hearkens back again to Soviet WWII artillery strategy: Shoot fast, aim almost everywhere and don’t stint on the ammunition. The Russians contain an army of botnets and sock puppets and honey pots. They work with troll factories to generate thousands of tweets, which cleverly mixture political news with apolitical posts about fashion and sports. They exploit all of the laws of on the web social science: Multiple options are more persuasive than a solitary one; emotionally resonant content material is passed on more frequently; and repetition leads to familiarity which leads to acceptance. I was impressed with how quickly the Russian propaganda equipment was along with the news-but, of training course, it requires less time to create up a fact than to check one. Plus they use our very own bias for “objectivity” against us: They understand American media will dutifully survey Russian fictions, on the other hand far-fetched, and try to balance them with appropriate reporting.
Putin has been the impresario of the information war. In 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell, there is a KGB operative in East Germany who noticed that the fantastic Soviet Union, which had spent trillions of rubles on tanks and missiles, had fallen without firing a shot. He recognized that American tender power-he has possibly used the term-had trumped Soviet hard power. When he started to be president of Russia in 1999, the initial thing Putin did was dominate the state television set network. He had learned the lesson.
When I interviewed Putin in 2006 for Time, he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the unraveling of the Soviet Union. His unstated goal is to put Humpty Dumpty back together once again by uniting the Russian diaspora, keeping his neighbors unstable, and undermining the appeal of the U.S. and the thought of democracy itself. Russian investment in media of all kinds-from television set stations in the periphery, to reality Television to VKontakte, sort of Russian Facebook-is a huge loss-leader and is meant to topple what he once named the “Anglo-Saxon monopoly” of media. The autocrat’s approach is always to have an enemy, and Putin’s enemy is constantly the U.S.
I wish I could say that we determined how to proceed about Russian disinformation and that people had seen what Russia would do in the 2016 election. We didn’t and I didn’t. But the posting was on the screen. The Ukraine Task Force became the Russia Info Group, where we supported credible counter-Russian voices in your community. We virtually stopped creating content material ourselves. After all, the STATE DEPT. isn’t accurately a media business, and the Russians were crushing us on quantity. We had been working with the big tech firms, Facebook, Google, Apple, on countering ISIS’ content on the web, but they only weren’t as interested or as knowledgeable about Russian disinformation. It wasn’t yet on the radar as a issue in the U.S. But in 2016, with the climb of “fake news,” crazy conspiracy stories, botnets and paid advertising on social media, we noticed the Putin playbook in action here in the U.S.
Before I still left the STATE DEPT., we had changed the guts for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications-a little entity developed by Secretary Clinton to counter Al Qaeda and ISIS messaging (she was before that one, as well)-into the Global Engagement Centre, a larger group whose ultimate goal was to combat disinformation all over the world, with a special give attention to Russia. Earlier this year, in the Protection Authorization Act, Congress expanded the GEC’s objective to counter express and non-state propaganda targeted at undermining national security and told the Protection Department to transfer up to $80 million to this innovative entity. Secretary of Condition Rex Tillerson possesses asked for a few but not each of the cash from the Pentagon, but it’s hard to imagine this STATE DEPT. using any of those cash to counter Russian propaganda.
Particularly when the head of the American government appears so often to count on their talking points.
Richard Stengel is normally writing a book in the global information war for Penguin Press.
This article tagged under: Russia