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A guide to understanding the hoax of the Century

Thirteen ways of looking at disinformation
by Jacob Siegel
Part 2 - Russophobia Returns, Unexpectedly: The Origins of Contemporary “Disinformation”

The foundations of the current information war were laid in response to a sequence of events that took place in 2014. First Russia tried to suppress the U.S.-backed Euromaidan movement in Ukraine; a few months later Russia invaded Crimea; and several months after that the Islamic State captured the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and declared it the capital of a new caliphate. In three separate conflicts, an enemy or rival power of the United States was seen to have successfully used not just military might but also social media messaging campaigns designed to confuse and demoralize its enemies—a combination known as “hybrid warfare.” These conflicts convinced U.S. and NATO security officials that the power of social media to shape public perceptions had evolved to the point where it could decide the outcome of modern wars—outcomes that might be counter to those the United States wanted. They concluded that the state had to acquire the means to take control over digital communications so that they could present reality as they wanted it to be, and prevent reality from becoming anything else.

Technically, hybrid warfare refers to an approach that combines military and non-military means—overt and covert operations mixed with cyberwarfare and influence operations—to both confuse and weaken a target while avoiding direct, full-scale conventional war. In practice, it is notoriously vague. “The term now covers every type of discernible Russian activity, from propaganda to conventional warfare, and most that exists in between,” wrote Russia analyst Michael Kofman in March 2016.

Over the past decade, Russia has indeed repeatedly employed tactics associated with hybrid warfare, including a push to target Western audiences with messaging on channels like RT and Sputnik News and with cyber operations such as the use of “troll” accounts. But this was not new even in 2014, and it was something the United States, as well as every other major power, engaged in as well. As early as 2011, the United States was building its own “troll armies” online by developing software to “secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.”

If you torture hybrid warfare long enough, it will tell you anything,” Kofman had admonished, which is precisely what began happening a few months later when Trump critics popularized the idea that a hidden Russian hand was the puppeteer of political developments inside the United States.

The leading voice promoting that claim was a former FBI officer and counterterrorism analyst named Clint Watts. In an article from August 2016, “How Russia Dominates Your Twitter Feed to Promote Lies (And, Trump, Too),” Watts and his co-author, Andrew Weisburd, described how Russia had revived its Cold War-era “Active Measures” campaign, using propaganda and disinformation to influence foreign audiences. As a result, according to the article, Trump voters and Russian propagandists were promoting the same stories on social media that were intended to make America look weak and incompetent. The authors made the extraordinary claim that the “melding of Russian-friendly accounts and Trumpkins has been going on for some time.” If that was true, it meant that anyone expressing support for Donald Trump might be an agent of the Russian government, whether or not the person intended to play that role. It meant that the people they called “Trumpkins,” who made up half the country, were attacking America from within. It meant that politics was now war, as it is in many parts of the world, and tens of millions of Americans were the enemy.

Watts made his name as a counterterrorism analyst by studying the social media strategies used by ISIS, but with articles like this, he became the media’s go-to expert on Russian trolls and Kremlin disinformation campaigns. It seems he also had powerful backers.

In his book The Assault on Intelligence, retired CIA chief Michael Hayden called Watts “the one man, who more than any other was trying to ring the alarm more than two years before the 2016 elections.

Hayden credited Watts in his book with teaching him the power of social media: “Watts pointed out to me that Twitter makes falsehoods seem more believable through sheer repetition and volume. He labeled it a kind of ‘computational propaganda.’ Twitter in turn drives mainstream media.

A false story algorithmically amplified by Twitter and disseminated by the media—it’s no coincidence that this perfectly describes the “bullshit” spread on Twitter about Russian influence operations: In 2017, it was Watts who came up with the idea for the Hamilton 68 dashboard and helped spearhead the initiative.


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