Propaganda war | The World Weekly
The conventional view is that the Cold War began after Russia and the West’s common enemy, Nazism, was defeated. However, this ignores the fact that Lenin set up Comintern in 1919 with the expressed aim of promoting the overthrow of western governments.
Similarly, conventional opinion suggests that the Cold War ended with the breakup of the USSR in 1991. To debunk this idea you don’t need to look at the history books, you can just read the news, as relations between Russia and the West continue to plumb new post-Soviet depths and the information war heats up.
This week the CIA declared with “high confidence” that Russia acted to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency throughout the election campaign. Moscow did this, it is alleged, by hacking into the emails of members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as well as Ms. Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, and then disseminating incriminating information via WikiLeaks. These leaks ensured a steady drip of negative Clinton stories for months leading up to the election. Republican servers were also hacked, but all information gleaned from them has been kept private.
If true, proving that the Russian state was behind this is of course problematic. The Office of the Director Of National Intelligence, the overseers of the CIA, have distanced themselves from the findings somewhat, saying that it is impossible to “prove intent”.
But as Ewan Lawson, senior research fellow for military influence at the Royal United Services Institute, explained to The World Weekly, Russian foreign policy is not always “coherent” and centralised, but instead can be characterised as “a series of fragmented actors operating within a broad sense of direction”. In other words, not being able to trace the hacks directly back to Vladimir Putin does not mean they aren’t his policy.
Similarly, some, such as George W. Bush’s close ally John Bolton, have suggested that the obvious trail the hackers left leading back to Russia suggest the whole thing may be a false flag operation designed to frame an old enemy. However, leaving “a little bit of ankle exposed” during espionage has long been a preferred tactic of the Kremlin. It serves “as a way of reminding others that there are consequences for contravening Russian interests”, Martin Libicki, distinguished visiting professor at the US Naval Academy, told TWW.
If Russia was indeed behind the hacks, the obvious next question is: why did they do this? What does Russia feel it has to gain from a Trump presidency? As Mr. Lawson pointed out, surely “the predictability of a Clinton presidency would have been easier to deal with”.
Perhaps, rather than promoting Mr. Trump, the plan was simply to discredit democracy, spreading fear, uncertainty and disillusionment in a country that threatens Russian interests. Perhaps the reason nothing was leaked from the hacks on Republican email accounts was because the Republicans were more careful about what they put on email, and there was nothing interesting to see. Whilst all of this is speculation, it seems safe to assume that Vladimir Putin is at least one step ahead.
Russia’s voice in the west
This idea of promoting disillusion and political chaos abroad, rather than a particular ideology, fits in with an often-made critique of Russia’s media wars. Its Kremlin-aligned international broadcaster, RT, spends much of its time highlighting problems in the West. Funded with $300 million of Russian taxpayer money per year, RT is seen by many as a network “that whitewashes the actions of Putin”. Those are the words of one of its former anchors, Liz Wahl, who quit on live television, saying it was impossible to work at the company if you believed in “disseminating the truth”.
Not everyone sees RT this way. Speaking to The World Weekly back in October, journalist and occasional contributor to RT Matt Turner said that “the scaremongering over RT” is “baseless”. Indeed, he said, the very existence of these criticisms in the West only exposes “their own biases even more”.
Its motives during the US election were fairly transparent. During the early campaign season, it referred to the election as ‘The American Horror Story’ and sought to paint both candidates as corrupt.
However, as time wore on, perhaps because she looked to be the likely winner, RT shifted the thrust of its attack to focus largely on Ms. Clinton. ‘Hillary Clinton is the most dangerous presidential hopeful from a war standpoint’, and ‘What does it take to bring Hillary Clinton to justice?’ are among the headlines from RT’s Op-Edge section.
Whilst the station has also aired commentary from opponents of Mr. Trump as well, its aim, it seems, was to weaken the credibility of the person they thought would be the winner. How, when and whether their editorial stance will shift once Mr. Trump is in office will be interesting to observe.
Russia’s information war is not without precedent, and not one-sided. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe all broadcast behind the Iron Curtain trying to subtly turn people against their rulers. Hollywood has pumped out thrillers with Russian villains for decades now.
Furthermore, and possibly more insidiously, the American media remains highly skilled at spreading untruths that suit its government among its own people.
A University of Maryland study into media coverage of the invasion of Iraq showed that in 2003, 69% of the American public believed that Saddam Hussein had been directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, and 22% believed that weapons of mass destruction had already been found. Indeed, as late as 2008, 48% of Americans still believed that the Iraq War had been in direct response to 9/11.
But, for the time being, it seems that Russia is proving more successful at influencing American politics than the other way round. Mr. Putin’s approval rating at home is 83%. Many argue America is more politically polarised than it has been at any point since the Civil War.
They are achieving this influence through pursuing a variety of tactics. As Craig Timberg wrote in the Washington Post last month, Russia is making use of “increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery”, including “botnets” and “paid human trolls”, as well as traditional voices like RT.
Back in 2015, The New York Times Magazine ran an expose on these paid trolls, who operate out of large offices in St. Petersburg. At the time, the focus was on generally spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about American issues on Twitter. However, Adrian Chen, the journalist who did the investigation, said later on the Longform podcast that the same accounts he was monitoring back then, had, by the campaign season, switched to become “fake conservatives… all tweeting about Donald Trump”.
These strategies of ‘dezinformatsiya’ may seem a strange way to make your presence felt around the world, but in elections as close as the one America has just had, they may just be able to make a difference. That is certainly what the head of domestic intelligence in Germany, Hans Georg Maasen, fears. He warned last week that Russia will likely look to spread misinformation and false news stories during the German elections next year, and has warned people to remain vigilant and attentive to the sources of news stories they see.
Whether these fears are well founded or not, the very fact that they exist means that their objectives have already been reached. People don’t know what to trust or believe, lies get spun in with the truth and divisions are sown. This week we saw Labour MP Ben Bradshaw blame the Brexit result on Russian hacking. This seems fanciful, but its fearful tone proves that Russia is succeeding in projecting the image of its power abroad, while in the West fear and paranoia reign in an age of uncertainty.