Donald Trump and his top advisers have spent the past four months under near constant scrutiny: Two congressional committees, the FBI and CIA—not to mention the entire news media—have launched separate investigations into the role Russia played in orchestrating his victory. Washington rarely sees such intense intrigue surrounding a sitting president in his first 100 days, a time traditionally devoted to policy initiatives, not police interrogations. But focusing on the election obscures the true extent of Russia’s influence: Today, months after Hillary Clinton’s emails were hacked, the Kremlin continues to deploy a host of digital tools to sow doubt and discord in the United States on an almost daily basis.
For years, the Russian propaganda machine—a loose network of hackers and state media outlets, Twitter bots and bloggers—has pumped out a steady stream of digital disinformation aimed at drumming up support at home and destabilizing enemies abroad. But since Trump’s election, experts report, the Kremlin has doubled down on its dissemination of fake news. Sometimes the stories are completely made up. More often they are simply misleading or biased, tidbits of real reporting repackaged to serve Russian goals.
One of the most recent battles in the propaganda war took place on January 4, less than a week after President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for the Kremlin’s meddling in the U.S. election. The Donbass International News Agency, a small wire service in Eastern Ukraine, published a short article online headlined “MASSIVE NATO DEPLOYMENT UNDERWAY.” Some 2,000 American tanks were assembling on the Russian border, the agency reported. The United States was preparing to invade.
The story was a blatant fabrication. A brigade in the 4th Infantry Division had, in fact, been deployed from Germany to Poland. But the brigade, which is comprised of only 87 tanks, was on a routine tour. Even so, this nugget of fake news quickly went viral. It was shared 28,000 times on Facebook, and spawned posts on Kremlin-friendly blogs and web sites like therussophile.org, friendsofsyria.wordpress.com, and the Centre for Research on Globalization—a site that peddles conspiracy theories ranging from Hillary Clinton’s secret pedophilia cabal to the Defense Department’s poisonous aerosol program. Within days, the story made the leap from the shadowy recesses of the internet to the mainstream. One of the Kremlin’s official wire services cited the story, noting that the United States seemed to be preparing for “another cowboy-style geopolitical adventure.”
“This is a classic disinformation piece, trying to demonize the United States and NATO deployments with distorted figures,” says Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab run by the Atlantic Council. “It shows that there’s really a globalized market for fake stories. They don’t have to be credible or local—they just have to have the right tone.”
Such tactics were pioneered during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union worked covertly to influence political dialogue in the West. From KGB rezidenturas scattered around the world, a small division called Service A planted false stories in newspapers, spread rumors, and worked to stir up racial tensions. In 1964, a KGB front group helped Joachim Joesten, a former Newsweek reporter, publish a sprawling conspiracy theory about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which later became the basis for Oliver Stone’s JFK. In 1983, Russian operatives planted a story in a small Indian newspaper claiming that the U.S. government had manufactured the AIDS virus at a military facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland—and Soviet wire services then trumpeted the story all over the world. As U.S. officials later explained in a report to Congress, “This allows the Soviets to claim that they are just repeating stories that have appeared in the foreign press.”
The internet has enabled the Kremlin to weaponize such tactics, making propaganda easier to manufacture and quicker to disseminate than any guided missile or act of espionage. Russian operations like the Internet Research Agency have employed hundreds of bloggers to mass-produce disinformation in the form of misleading tweets, Facebook posts, and comments on web sites ranging from The Huffington Post to Fox News. “Since at least 2008,” Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian media expert, observes, “Kremlin military and intelligence thinkers have been talking about information not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.”
Some of the most unsuspecting targets are American conservatives. During the Cold War, the KGB worked almost exclusively with leftist groups around the world—labor unions, socialist newspapers, and other organizations sympathetic to the communist cause. With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Russia morphed into an equal opportunity meddler that seeks to inflame everyone from Bernie bros to Trump deplorables. “The point of an influence campaign is to get people involved who wouldn’t otherwise be involved,” J.M. Berger, a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, recently told ABC News. “A lot of people in the alt-right would not necessarily characterize themselves as being pro-Russian, but they’re receiving influence from this campaign.”
According to Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who tracks the Kremlin’s digital propaganda, Russia began targeting American audiences more aggressively in late 2014. Two news outlets on the Kremlin payroll, RT and Sputnik, churned out stories about chaos among Black Lives Matter protesters and tensions during the Bundy Ranch standoff in Oregon. They also worked to undermine Clinton, fearing she would take a firm stance on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Russia’s network of online “hecklers” and conspiratorial web sites then spread these Kremlin-financed stories through the internet, inflaming American conservatives. “This is the pattern,” Nimmo says. “Vilifying and amplifying. You find unflattering information, and you get all the other parts of the machine to amplify the message.”
As Watts explained in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the goal of Putin’s fake-news operation is clear: to tarnish democratically elected leaders, deepen preexisting divisions, incite social unrest, and conjure up a world on the brink of annihilation. In short, Russia wants to create chaos. It knows that when the lines between fact and fiction, real news and fake, begin to blur, the Kremlin benefits.
Since Trump’s election, Moscow’s propaganda efforts have become increasingly obvious. In April, Russian social media accounts sought to dismiss the well-documented chemical attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as nothing but an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the United States to pursue its imperialist ambitions in the Middle East. Hours after Trump launched his retaliatory strike, #SyriaHoax was the top topic trending on Twitter—helped along by Mike Cernovich, a popular alt-right blogger and Trump supporter who was the mastermind behind the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory. Russian hackers have also targeted Norway, the Netherlands, and Germany, where officials are worried that Russian agents are gearing up to smear Chancellor Angela Merkel by releasing reams of stolen emails as she runs for reelection—the same strategy Russia used to debilitate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“Over the past three years, Russia has implemented and run the most effective and efficient influence campaign in world history,” Watts told the Senate panel. Armed with his digital propaganda machine, Putin can influence world politics without having to fire a shot. “The Kremlin,” Watts says, “can crumble democracies from the inside out.”