Well this isn’t exactly surprising, although for me personally, it certainly is unnerving.
I’ve long contended that, as conspiratorial as it may sound, all manner of alt-Right websites were engaged in a 24-7, Russia-sponsored propaganda push to sway public opinion in the US ahead of last year’s election.
When I say that may sound “conspiratorial,” conservative readers will respond as follows: “yes, Heisenberg, it certainly does.”
Readers of a liberal persuasion will say this: “no, that doesn’t sound conspiratorial at all – in fact, it’s common knowledge.”
But what the vast majority of netizens (both liberal and conservative) in the US don’t understand is how concentrated an effort this truly was. And more importantly, it wasn’t just carried out via blatantly fake, fly-by-night websites.
Rather, this was an effort that utilized some of the most “trusted” alt-Right portals as conduits. Portals which are just as popular (if not more so) today than they were in the lead-up to the election. Portals which I guarantee some HR readers still frequent. These are the sites I commonly refer to as “progeny” of Breitbart.
One of the most common tactics among such sites was to create a veritable echo chamber of bullshit. To be sure, all media is an echo chamber of bullshit. That goes for Fox and Breitbart on the Right and for CNN, MSNBC, etc. on the Left.
But this was different. This was much more dangerous because unlike Breitbart, the sites I’m talking about weren’t (and still aren’t) burdened by a concurrent effort to cultivate a quasi-legitimate image. That is, they’re just “legitimate” enough to be taken seriously by large numbers of people, but not legitimate enough to worry about the reputational consequences of doing things like citing Alex Jones (who once contended that the lining of juice boxes was turning frogs into bisexuals), or running with wild stories about the return of McCarthyism or about the CIA hiding in your PS4.
What these sites did was take stories (likely emanating from emissaries in the remnants of the Eastern bloc), combine them with what, on the surface, looked like learned analysis, and then pass them around to each other, creating the illusion of legitimacy and journalistic veracity.
Often, those stories would be subsequently cited by RT and Sputnik (popular Russian state-owned, English language propaganda outlets). Then, the very same sites would turn around and cite the very same RT and Sputnik as proof that they were correct.
By the time the recycling exercise was complete, no one could tell where the story originally came from.
Well guess what? Now we know exactly where the stories came from.
Read below as Reuters – who got the exclusive on this – explains how this likely played out. And do note that the narrative I laid out above is the same narrative I’ve been pounding the table on for months. That is, long before the Reuters piece excerpted below was published.
A Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election to Donald Trump and undermine voters’ faith in the American electoral system, three current and four former U.S. officials told Reuters.
They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies [en.riss.ru/], after the election.
The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin’s office.
The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.
It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials said.
A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the seven officials said.
The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents’ classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.
Putin has denied interfering in the U.S. election. Putin’s spokesman and the Russian institute did not respond to requests for comment.
The documents were central to the Obama administration’s conclusion that Russia mounted a “fake news” campaign and launched cyber attacks against Democratic Party groups and Clinton’s campaign, the current and former officials said.
“Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map,” said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump’s quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.
Russia Today did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Sputnik dismissed the assertions by the U.S. officials that it participated in a Kremlin campaign as an “absolute pack of lies.” “And by the way, it’s not the first pack of lies we’re hearing from ‘sources in U.S. official circles’,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Russia Today and Sputnik published anti-Clinton stories while pro-Kremlin bloggers prepared a Twitter campaign calling into question the fairness of an anticipated Clinton victory, according to a report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian interference in the election made public in January. [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]
Russia Today’s most popular Clinton video – “How 100% of the 2015 Clintons’ ‘charity’ went to … themselves” – accumulated 9 millions views on social media, according to the January report. [bit.ly/2os8wIt]
The report said Russia Today and Sputnik “consistently cast president elect-Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional media outlets.”
The report said the agencies did not assess whether Moscow’s effort had swung the outcome of the race in Trump’s favor, because American intelligence agencies do not “analyze U.S. political processes or U.S. public opinion.” [bit.ly/2kMiKSA]
The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.
Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin’s in-house foreign policy think tank.
The institute’s director when the documents were written, Leonid Reshetnikov, rose to the rank of lieutenant general during a 33-year-career in Russia’s foreign intelligence service, according to the institute’s website [bit.ly/2oVhiCF]. After Reshetnikov retired from the institute in January, Putin named as his replacement Mikhail Fradkov. The institute says he served as the director of Russia’s foreign intelligence service from 2007 to 2016. [bit.ly/2os4tvz]
Reuters was unable to determine if either man was directly involved in the drafting of the documents. Reshetnikov’s office referred questions to the Russian institute.
On its website, the Russian institute describes itself as providing “expert appraisals,” “recommendations,” and “analytical materials” to the Russian president’s office, cabinet, National Security Council, ministries and parliament. [bit.ly/2pCBGpR]
On Jan. 31, the websites of Putin’s office [bit.ly/2os9wMr] and the institute [bit.ly/2oLn9Kd] posted a picture and transcript of Reshetnikov and his successor Fradkov meeting with Putin in the Kremlin. Putin thanked Reshetnikov for his service and told Fradkov he wanted the institute to provide objective information and analysis.
“We did our best for nearly eight years to implement your foreign policy concept,” Reshetnikov told Putin. “The policy of Russia and the policy of the President of Russia have been the cornerstone of our operation.”