Last month, I visited Russia to learn more about the Kremlin's campaign to influence the U.S. election in 2016.
But the more I learned about Kremlin techniques, magnified by social media, the more similar those techniques appeared to President Trump's modus operandi.
The Kremlin has more tools, and U.S. citizens still have more independent news sources. Yet Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are both waging information wars that rely on confusing their opponents with an endless barrage of conspiracy theories and fake "facts." They push favored narratives over and over ("Spygate," anyone?) until these narratives sink into public consciousness. They are repeated not just by supporters but even by those who know them to be false.
No one understands Russian techniques better than Clint Watts, a fellow at Philadelphia's Foreign Policy Research Institute, who is also a former Army officer, FBI special agent, and counterterrorism expert. He is also the author of a fascinating new book, Messing With the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians and Fake News, which details the way Putin and Trump boost each other's narratives.
"Russia's method represents not an information war, but a war on information itself," says Watts. "Trump has the same approach."
Watts worries that "Americans still don't grasp the information war Russia perpetrated against the West, why it works, and why it continues." The KGB used "active measures" – efforts to undermine the West by means other than military – for decades.
But the advent of social media exponentially expanded Russia's ability to amplify its "active measures" with little manpower. It's not just things you already know – that Kremlin cutouts stole Democratic emails and passed them to WikiLeaks, which then strategically released them an hour after the release of the Access Hollywood tape, eclipsing Trump's "grab 'em by the pussy" grossness.
The bigger danger is that Russia's cyber efforts go beyond helping one candidate or hurting another. They are more broadly aimed at exacerbating existing divisions in our democracy and spreading disruptive conspiracy theories – often those put forward by Trump or the websites he promotes. Social bots – false social-media accounts designed to push out high volumes of information – can make such falsehoods go viral.
One example: A Russian-influence account labeled @TEN-GOP and posing as a Tennessee GOP account gathered 136,00 followers while repeating bogus voter-fraud charges. Fox News quoted it, top Trump campaign officials tweeted it, every major conservative website repeated it. And this was just one of thousands of accounts operated by Russia in the lead-up to the election.
Watts believes the Kremlin had no need to engage in direct collusion with the Trump team. It was easily able to find team members (Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, etc.) to do its bidding. Moreover, Trump's unending promotion of Putin has led to an astonishing shift of support to Putin on the American right. A February 2017 Gallup poll shows a 166 percent rise in Putin's favorability rating among Republicans just since 2015.
Thus the Kremlin has ripe targets for disinformation on alt-right and white-supremacist websites that support Trump, along with some far-left sites. Says Watts: "They infiltrate key audiences, then direct them on strategic themes and messages."
Example: Watts says he's seen "routine regurgitation of Russian propaganda" on InfoWars, one alt-right site praised by Trump that promotes the most ugly conspiracy theories — like claims the Sandy Hook massacre was staged. Trump and his team often retweet claims by such sites.
And here's what's really scary: It's hard to challenge the Kremlin's messaging – aimed at undermining NATO, the European Union, America's role abroad, and the free Western press – when Trump enhances its messages.
"He echoes what Putin says on every issue, which is why we can't change the narrative," says Watts. Even more disturbing, Trump still refuses to mount a unified U.S. government pushback against Russian cyber espionage.
Instead, the president's attacks on U.S. institutions (the FBI, the CIA, the Justice Department, the mainstream media) maximize Putin's game plan. And Trump's constant promotion of false conspiracy theories gives Putin's info warriors rich material to package for the Russian home crowd as examples of America's decline.
Case in point: Trump's lie that the FBI infiltrated his campaign with spies. Even conservative Rep. Trey Gowdy said, on Fox News, that the FBI was justified in sending an informant (to check out Trump staffers who were consorting with known Russian intelligence agents). But Trump keeps tweeting "Spygate" – a canard repeated by Russian TV and social media.
"Before the social-media age, there was a filter on conspiracy theories from Congress and the mainstream media," says Watts, "but today people choose their information sources and Trump's conspiracy claims are repeated." Canards become accepted as reality by Trump supporters. Meantime, Trump opponents are deluged with so many fake claims that it becomes exhausting to try to refute them.