Before cable television and the internet, audiences relied upon common sources for news and information to inform life choices and hold elected officials accountable. Networks competing for audience share were inclined to adhere to truth, lest they face public consternation. Most people trusted the veracity of national news.
That changed with the advent of cable and the Worldwide Web. With hundreds of channels narrowcasting a wide selection of genre-specific programming, audiences began gravitating toward outlets that more specifically aligned with their core values, where opinion pundits replaced journalists to shape public perceptions. In the absence of regulation, right-wing media outlets became a safe haven for evangelicals and alt-right zealots pushing extreme ideology.
Today, with the exception of local newspapers, terrestrial radio, snail-mail and billboards, there are few media channels that still have capacity to unite us around the same set of facts. Our reliance on self-gratifying echo chambers made us vulnerable to influence by adversarial operatives like Russian military intelligence, who exploited our prejudices in pursuit of a sinister political agenda.
Weaponized disinformation, or Dezinformatsiya as it’s called in Russian, convinced Americans to elect a wholly unfit president who would serve as a Kremlin asset. Russia’s insidious psychological manipulation has radicalized Trump’s base to the point material facts and sources that contradict their adopted beliefs or disparage the president are patently rejected as “fake news.” On numerous occasions, President Trump has publicly admonished the entire Russia investigation as a “Hoax” and vowed to prosecute President Obama and members of the FBI for pursuing it.
According to U.S. Intelligence agencies, as evidenced by numerous indictments, prosecutions and convictions resulting from the Mueller Investigation and recently confirmed by Senate Intelligence Reports, Russia’s influence in the 2016 election was no hoax. Far from it.
In a report titled The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money, which was published in The Interpretor as a project for the Institute of Modern Russia, co-authors Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev centered their report on this premise,
In the twenty-first century, information warfare has become the world’s primary form of warfare, and effective countermeasures have yet to be developed… Dezinformatsiya was one of the many active measures. Defined by Lothar Metzel, who was for a long time the CIA’s leading expert on the subject, as “operations aiming at pollution of the opinion-making process in the West,” nine Dezinformatsiya operations placed fakes and forgeries in international media and other sources to defame an adversary and “ultimately…to cause the adversary to reach decisions beneficial to Soviet interests.”
Like other democratic nations dangerously close to becoming fascist states, the U.S. has been compromised by Russia’s efforts to destabilize democracies and fracture diplomatic alliances throughout the World. Well-funded, highly-organized foreign operatives have weaponized disinformation, using cyber operatives and artificial intelligence to prey on disenfranchised Americans and target political adversaries.
They’re still at it.
New active measures are underway targeting democratic candidates to sway the 2020 elections. Their strength lies in the size of their troll network, organizational infrastructure, financial stake in proprietary artificial intelligence and access to classified information, Bill Barr and the president, which makes them especially menacing to democratic leaders they target.
According to an August 31st CIA Assessment as reported by Josh Rogin, columnist for the Washington Post, Vladamir Putin has a hand in the propagation of false information to influence the U.S. election.
We assess that President Vladamir Putin and the senior most Russian officials are aware of, and probably directing Russia’s infuence operations at denigrating the former U.S. Vice President, supporting the U.S. president and fueling public discord ahead of the U.S. election in November. ~ Josh Rogin on CIA Assessment
Regardless of who is to blame for propagating disinformation, it has had a fertile breeding ground in social media. Whether intentional or unwitting, Silicon Valley is complicit in creating chaos and division by allowing foreign operatives to exploit private user data for profit and gain control of the spread of disinformation.
In the absence of any meaningful regulation, corporate and foreign intelligence operatives have been allowed to invest in and capitalize on user data, enabling them to target vulnerable groups with disinformation that validates their grievances, reinforces their beliefs and plays on their fears. For example, algorithms manipulate results of a simple Google search to yield results according to a user’s browsing history, economic class, race and previously stated personal opinions. This phenomenon has prevented consumers of information from seeing truth, even when earnestly seeking it. Weiss and Pomerantsev acknowledged the importance of social media in Russia’s active measures:
Internationally, social media has allowed the Kremlin’s traditional media to make their way into the mainstream. RT claims to have a billion hits on YouTube, where its clips can be even less associated with their original Kremlin source.
Russian operatives, aided and abetted by Trump sympathizers, both within and outside of the US, have recruited virtual digital armies to flood social media echo chambers with psychologically manipulative content. The emergence of the infamous QAnon conspiracy peddlers further amplify Russia’s pro-trump narrative. Their highly organized, well-funded “active measures” are designed to sew chaos, distort history, incite violence, promote racism and defame the president’s adversaries. Since 2016, their methods have become more and more sophisticated and harder to detect.
Using a combination of artificial intelligence bots and human trolls to infiltrate target groups, operatives posing as American patriots execute campaigns intended to reinforce their targets’ prejudices and validate their grievances. Identifying one another in social media with hashtags like #MAGA and #WWIWGA, millions of Trump’s followers have coalesced into virtual cult of radical groupies who unwittingly participate in the Russian Active measures, under the belief they are saving America from liberals they’ve been convinced are members of a “Deep State” cabal running pedophilia rings.
Who believes this nonsense and why?
Those of us who haven’t been influenced by these nefarious narratives find the conspiracies and abject lies peddled by the operatives too outlandish to believe, which begs the question, how did they fall for it? The answer may lie in their personal vulnerabilities and ingrained prejudices, which made them easy targets for Russia’s psychological warfare.
“If you don’t have something to hold on to, be that religion, be it values or politics, if you have nothing to fight for, when someone offers you another option – whether you agree with it or not – you take it,” said Hannah Thoburn, Eurasia Analyst from the Foreign Policy Initiative. At The Menace of Unreality report launch event, she argued that “the creators of modern propaganda are exceedingly good at delivering political messages.”
The Interpreter report aims to help members of governments, civil society, and the media understand how the Kremlin’s propaganda machine works and the challenges it presents to the West. It also provides a set of recommendations for how best to confront these challenges.
Even as the Kremlin’s non-linear influence grows worldwide, there seems to be complacency in the US regarding the risks the Kremlin poses. ~ Weiss and Pomerantsev
Deregulation of FCC rules and absence of any meaningful oversight by Cogress and abandonment of bureaucracies like the United States Information Agency and the Interagency Active Measures Working Group, a governmental agency tasked with debunking Soviet Dezinformatsiya during the Reagan era, have created a regulatory void the Kremlin has exploited. That the president has no interest in stopping Russia’s active measures explains our nation’s apathetic response. Putin has waged all-out war against us, and is winning, with the willful support of the President of the United States. Currently in chaos on all fronts – socially, economically and politically – we are a nation deeply divided.
How can we bridge the divide?
Like members of a religious cult, victims of the incessant disinformation campaigns recoil when confronted with the truth about their adopted beliefs. Deprogramming that kind of psychological manipulation can take years. This is an especially-perplexing problem given the lack of transparency in social media, validation of false narratives in major network programming and complicity of the President and GOP sycophants who refuse to address the problem and even amplify the Dezinformatsiya.
An underlying issue in addressing such media as RT is the lack of any stable definitions for “propaganda” or “disinformation.” “Isn’t every- thing propaganda?” was a sentiment often heard by the authors during the research for this paper. But this dismissive attitude risks opening up the space for the weaponization of information, making deception equivalent to argumentation and the deliberate misuse of facts as legitimate as rational persuasion… An initiative is needed that will bring together inter- national media and experts to define the terms of reference for “propaganda,” with the purpose of agreeing on a common set of definitions, and to explore the possibility of a ratings system for disinformation inspired by such methodologies as Freedom House’s Freedom Ranking and Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index to create a benchmark for behavior. ~ from The Menace of Unreality: How the Kremlin Weaponizes Information, Culture and Money
There is a dire need to counter the sinister active measures of political, corporate and adversarial foreign operatives, which are systematically polarizing cultures, destroying our planet and disrupting nearly every aspect of our society. The solution lies in addressing reasons behind the core problems:
- Why it has become more and more difficult to reach audiences who have succumbed to the influence campaigns or anyone else who has grown to mistrust the veracity of any news that contradicts information disseminated by the media outlets they trust; and
- Why no amount of factual evidence or testimony will convince them otherwise unless we can reach them outside of outlets catering to their cultural tribalism and adopted beliefs.
Reaching segmented audiences that gravitate to media outlets that cater to their own beliefs requires a return to conventional distribution channels such as terrestrial radio, direct email, print media. Short of taking a page from the Putin/Trump playbook, this will require significant research about audience sentiments, studying audience segments and the content that draws them to their tribal media outlets and creating a comprehensive plan to penetrate their psyches with effective messaging that can reach them where they are — if not in their media corners but in places where they see content by default. Reaching segmented audiences will require a return to more traditional mass-media tactics such as buying brokered air time, printing and distributing hard-copy content and, in the long term, acquiring community broadcast entities.
According to Weiss and Pomerantsev,
Public information campaigns about how disinformation works are needed to change the public’s behavior and foster more critical thought towards the messages that are being “buzzed” at them.
The report makes for countering Dezinformatsiya including the deployment of editorial ombudsmen in major media who dispute falsehoods and correct the record and “Truth Squads” that can amplify factual content. Fact-checking outlets such as Snopes and FactCheck.org are reliable, but not for those who rely solely on the White House and FoxNews for their versions of the “truth” – who don’t go out of their way to learn what they’ve come to believe is false.
Victims of disinformation campaigns may never reverse the deep-seeded hatred of “the others” engendered by the insidious psychological manipulation. However, it is incumbent upon our government and clear-headed advocates to bridge divides.
There is far more that unites us than divides us. Most people want the same things: love, financial security, good health, clean natural resources, comfortable living conditions and a healthy habitat. Most Americans consider themselves patriots. We value freedom, liberty and a government that works for us. While Russian Dezinformatsiya hijacked “Patriotism” for its victims, there’s opportunity to reclaim it for uniting true patriots, whose allegiance is to our Constitution.
Effective content that addresses the grievances of victims as human, not political, issues could be useful to restore public trust in the truth civility, equality, justice they desire. Ideally, this would include multi-faceted narrative that:
- Appeals to the common interests of segregated audiences outside of the economic, religious, cultural or partisan paradigms propagated in their segmented media outlets
- Promotes the understanding that, as humans, we have more in common than not and that there is far more to gain by embracing our diversity than condemning those who are different
- Draws attention to the hopes, dreams and aspirations that unite us as human beings and ways in which, together, we have a greater chance of achieving them
- Speaks truth to power with sound alternatives to the divisive rhetoric, partisan propaganda, conspiracy theories and hate mongering that has been normalized in today’s civil discourse
- Counters the sinister media influence campaigns intended to disrupt social norms with thought-provoking programming that helps unwitting victims understand the truth
- Inspires corporate responsibility, environmental stewardship and compassionate action, and rewards those who make a concerted effort to live For Greater Good
- Unites people with meaningful common purpose with strategic American-centric campaigns
As policy failures are partly to blame for enabling Russian disinformation to influence masses, sweeping policy reform measures will go a long way to rectify problems that enabled disinformation, corruption and abuses of power in both government and media to flourish. This will also require a change of governance, since the current administration has enjoyed the boost from Russian operatives who aim to extend his reign.
This is a long-range challenge that will require a massive coalition of activist groups, human rights advocates, legal advocacy organizations, lobbyists and influencers to apply pressure upon elected officials to enact policy that promotes national security, civil rights, election reform, truth in media, environmental protections and human health.