Russian campaign Interference looks like ISIL in Polarizing Techniques

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The Mueller inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign has now brought indictments against specific Russian individuals and organizations, including the crony of Vladimir Putin, Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” because the Russian president throws his business large numbers of high level government catering jobs.

The complicated Russian plot against the 2016 elections involves several distinct questions, as John Feffer points out:

1. Was there a concerted Russian attempt to influence the election?

2. Which individuals and organizations in specific were involved, if any?

3. If there were Russians so involved, were they directed by the Russian government?

4. How exactly did they intervene? Did they change votes by hacking into voting machines? [No, they did not change votes; yes, they hacked into the Illinois machines.] Did they attempt to suppress the Democratic vote? How?

5. If there was a major cyber-campaign to influence the US election, did it have any success? How could its success be measured?

6. Was the interference welcomed by the Trump campaign and did Trump and his cronies insert themselves into the ongoing Russian operation against the Hillary Clinton campaign once Trump emerged as a front-runner for the GOP nomination?

Friday’s DOJ indictments answer some of these questions but by no means all of them.

The first takeaway of the indictments is that, yes, there was a significant Russian operation to influence the US election, funded in part by Prigozhin. While in legal matters guilt by association is not probative, in politics it cannot be dismissed. Prigozhin’s role points strongly to Putin direction of this campaign operation. Moreover, the Russian government is the primary likely beneficiary of a sidelining of Ms. Clinton. It is hard to see how Prigozhin himself could benefit. By the rule of means, motive and opportunity, we can reasonably conclude there was a Putin-directed plot.

The second takeaway we already knew–that Russian cells were formed to establish phony Facebook, Twitter and other accounts that pushed divisive politics in the United States. At one point a supposed Islamophobic group protested outside a Texas mosque, met by a pro-Muslim counter-demonstration. Both demonstrations were called for by fake Russian sites. These sites grew to have enormous popularity, with hundreds of thousands of followers. They spread around memes such as that Clinton supports sharia or Islamic law. Supposed Black Lives Matter sites argued that African-Americans should not vote, which would hurt Clinton. I’m sure we all have relatives who kept sending us those Russia disinformation links on Facebook.

A corollary of this second takeaway is that the philosophy of the Russian operation was similar to that of ISIL and other extremist terrorist organizations. ISIL briefly took over 40% of Iraq by striving for a decade to provoke hatred between Shiites and Sunnis. They concentrated on bombing Shiites and making it clear Sunnis had done it. Then the Shiites attacked the Sunnis, driving them into the hands of ISIL. ISIL and al-Qaeda have tried to play the same number on Muslims living in Europe and North America. While the Russian operation was not violent, its premises were similar (and ISIL used its techniques on the internet, too).

In turn, I have argued that Muslim extremists were influenced by the old Soviet Communist tactic of “sharpening contradictions.” That is, the similarity of approach may actually have a common genealogy back to the early 20th century.

The third takeaway is how big the operations were. There were entire troll factories that got millions of Twitter retweets and Facebook shares.

A fourth takeaway (and on this I have changed my mind over time) is that the Russian campaign may well have had such success that it did actually affect the outcome.

Trump’s victory was extremely narrow. If just a few tens of thousands of Black voters in Detroit stayed home rather than coming out for Clinton, that threw Michigan to Trump. Note that Michigan had been trending Democratic in presidential elections for two decades, by a 5% margin. So Clinton’s loss is weird. It can’t be explained only by a swing of white working class voters to Trump. Only 14% of white blue collar voters who had cast their ballots for Obama defected to the GOP in 2016. Given that lots of other kinds of people live in Michigan, that wouldn’t by itself have erased the 5% tilt to the Democrats.

On the other hand, it is also true that Detroit has hemorrhaged population in recent decades, shrinking from 1.1 million in 1990 to less than a million in 2000 and now we are down to probably 670,000 and going on down from there. African-Americans have moved to Atlanta in large numbers.

Moreover, Clinton declined to campaign in Michigan, which certainly contributed to her loss of the state. A friend of mine in the DP tried to get her to come talk to the Arab Americans in Dearborn and she would not do it, possibly because she was in the back pocket of Israeli billionaire Haim Saban and did not want to risk annoying him.

Also Clinton was a horrible candidate and her shilling for Goldman Sachs in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars per speech hurt her with those many Michiganders who had had their homes repossessed by the banks.

So whether the Russian attempts at voter suppression were the cause of Trump’s victory in Michigan is still hard to know, but it cannot be ruled out. What is clear is that Clinton can’t take any satisfaction in this possibility, since if she had been a better candidate she could have counter-acted the fairly flat-footed Russian propaganda mill.


Bonus video:

CBC: “13 Russians indicted for interfering in 2016 U.S. election”

28 Responses

  1. It is already clear that this is the greatest threat ever to the American polity (if not also the American state), it’s like Ben Franklin’s nightmare, “you have a republic, if you can keep it,” and we have, through a very strange set of circumstances, allowed a monster into position where he might turn it into an autocracy or he is indeed directly Putin’s poodle or maybe he just might generally wreck it past reconditioning. (I personally have become extremely afraid of these idiots blundering into a nuclear exchange with North Korea, based on their idiotic “give him a ‘bloody nose’ attack” theory).

    FWIW, I have tried to be firm intellectual opponent of something these trolls try to prey on, the “ultimate uncertainty” that so many feel in these modern times, that “there is no truth,” or that “all truth is relative” or that “it’s all so complicated, how could we ever know?”

    I maintain that in all of global history, there is only one true set of masses and energies in motion at any one time, there is only one true physical/chemical history of human beings. And yes, it’s often very complicated to figure it all out. Yet it can be done (to the extent that we have evidence, and for the 21st Century, we are going to have a lot of evidence available on everyone), and you can be your own best social scientist in trying to figure out, by concentrating on how our every thought and action simultaneously creates the data of our psychologies, our philosophies, our politics and our economics, and creates,if you can see it, the sciences of psychology, philosophy, politics and economics we need to study these things.

    In other words, keep striving, there is hope of a better understanding.

    • We are no better than our ancestors in the 1930s. Ordinary citizens never truly learned the lessons of their mistakes, they received a dumbed-down version from their leaders about how to avoid Depressions and World Wars and Fascism. We developed a thin veneer of institutional safeguards and taboos after 1945 to keep both rulers and ruled under control. Those created the construct of consensus reality via media oligopolies and peer-reviewed science, etc. Extremists couldn’t just cry fire in a crowded theater and get useful results.

      Now a more sophisticated set of psychological techniques has released the beast again. Any horror committed by our forefathers is no longer unimaginable.

      • The parallels of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler have been discussed by many.

        One noteworthy is the fact that Hitler had very little support by German newspapers during his rise to power and relied upon populism. Trump’s most noteworthy news endorsements were from the National Enquirer, the neo-Nazi periodical Stormfront, and a Las Vegas news journal owned by Sheldon Adelson.

        Among the very first war criminals hanged at Nuremberg in 1946 was Julius Streicher, the publisher of Der Sturmer, a newspaper that promoted Nazism.

        Another was the fact Hitler was involved in a controversial suspected abusive sexual relationship with Geli Raubal, which led to her suicide in 1931 and many suspected that it would destroy Hitler’s political career – it did not. Trump likewise has been hit with numerous sexual harassment allegations that have not prevented him from being elected and retaining his office.

        Both Hitler and Trump have had their loyalty to their government under attack. When Hitler was convicted of leading the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich there were some who called for the death penalty be imposed – but Hitler received a short prison term. Trump has been suspected of being a stooge for the Russian government – although this speculation is unproven – and his administration remains under close FBI scrutiny as he serves out his term.

        Trump – like Hitler – is a successful demagogue who skillfully manipulated the masses into electing him in 2016 and whose support is largely intact amongst his “constituency”.

      • When you read American history, I think the political intelligence of the typical American voter has declined severely. Political rallies in the past were often big events and I think there was more public discourse. The ignorance of the American public, which Professor Cole does not mention here, seems to me to be an important component of Trump’s victory. The success of Russian efforts is due largely to the fact that hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of voters accepted ridiculous claims without bothering to check their accuracy. It is ironic and even seems counter factual, that while we now have limitless information available almost instantly via the internet, many people seem less informed because they only want to reaffirm their already held beliefs and don’t want to be bothered with basic research. I have run into very few Trump supporters who are really informed and knowledgeable.

        • “I have run into very few Trump supporters who are really informed and knowledgeable.” As long as the concept(s) of “knowing” and “believing” are allowed to be used interchangeably the IGNORANCE PROBLEM will grow within the U.S.

          There was a time when S.I. Hayakawa was recommended reading, • Language in Thought and Action is now in its fifth edition.

    • …there is only one true set of masses and energies in motion at any one time, etc. Isn’t such an approach dependent on a perspective from which you cannot detach yourself however far you step back to reflect on your data?

      • So could you please explain how two or more sets of masses and energies might be co-existing at one time ?

        And why do I, as an observer trying to act in the scientific tradition, have to “detach myself” from the context in which i live and process information? I am a part of this life and I mostly love it, and I have been in a lot of interesting places to see a lot of interesting things, search out my other writings where nearly everything is revealed, yet never have I experienced any possibility that there could more than one set of masses and energies in motion at any one time.

    • I love Nagarjuna and he would disagree with all of your philosophical points :) This is a duality and there is no “one thing” anywhere. Singularities cannot exist, or be known in a duality. I think your point on “one truth” is incorrect. Without mentality, materiality would be pointless. We can only know any event or object by processing that with a mentality and then that is relayed to another being or another being processes his version of what any event would be. Any “truth”, which again would be a collection of events itself, would always be open to interpretation by a mentality and each mentality perceives things differently. This can also be applied to simultaniety. No subject or object can be simultaneous with itself and, again, just to perceive change there has to be at least two compounded events with a third compounded event that is called perception. If there were one singular truth, which there cant be, it could never be known precisely because this is a duality and all knowledge we have is filtered and disseminated through the perceptions of beings. And then of course the problem with there being no “one thing” that can be identified anywhere…Conventionally, what you say is correct and would be accepted by most i think. But when one starts to examine objects carefully, they are all compounded phenomena and no one thing can be found anywhere.

  2. Whether or not anyone interfered in the election it is clearly perfectly possible to do so, and in line with Murphy’s law bound to happen. The local solution may be to change the election process so that such attempts are more easily observed in flagrante. The process itself is surely far too long. Such things would be less able to happen were it shorter, as in most other places.

    • This is the thing we need to unify around. Instead of arguments over who’s worse, we need to see that even the perception that Putin got something from his efforts guarantees that EVERYONE who wishes to push a marginal agenda into power, every radical group, every special interest group, every government, will adopt these methods and pour resources into them against all their enemies everywhere on Earth.

      Such a world of lies cannot long refrain from using the weapons of physical violence at its disposal. The worst will be talked into civil war against the rest.

      Representative democracy has been hacked. The 2016 election just completed the process. The database of proven methods has reached critical mass. It cannot be erased or forgotten or even made too distasteful to use. Either you patch up the old software with some sort of antivirus mechanism (legal safeguards) or you create new software (a different electoral system, even direct democracy) that cannot be swayed by these particular methods.

    • According to the US government, the process is not the problem. That is sound as a drum, they say. The problem is what people think and how they arrive at that thought. Americans now, they say, aren’t at fault because they were duped into voting for one candidate, and hating another candidate, because of a foreign advertising campaign that sought to change the opinion of a public. That is my understanding of the situation.

    • The KGB has a long history of trying to affect elections and insert propaganda into a national dialog. They have done this often in the past by doing things like bribing reporters to write false narratives or emphasize pro-Soviet viewpoints. They had done things like having coordinated letter writing on subjects that benefit them. Their approaches could be effective in Third World countries because of limited or lax controls and poor internal communication infrastructure. Those methods rarely would work in a developed country when newspapers and major networks were the main reporters of news. Journalism in this country relies on fact checking and editors insist on this and almost always require more than one source for any story, especially those involving any scandal. The rise of social media has been a game changer. Now anyone or any entity can create a “news” site or news outlet. Speculation can be presented as fact. Propaganda can abound because there are no editors and no filters for misinformation. False information that would have been discounted and never seen the light of day in the past now can be copied and shared with hundreds of thousands in the blink of an eye. Facebook plays a role by feeding people information that their algorithms show is consistent with their beliefs as revealed by their prior interest. This different environment has made Russian interference possible and much more powerful in developed countries than was possible before. So, it is incorrect to say that this is the same thing that has happened in the past. It is different both in volume and in kind.

  3. Your point #4 contains the breaking point, the line that cannot be crossed. If the Russians even altered voter rolls in, say, Detroit to cause Democratic registrations to be challenged and delayed, that would be the line that no Great Power can tolerate from another Great Power (though Great Powers do such things to minor states all the time). Everything short of that is just black propaganda.

    But more specifically for Americans, that would be the point where it wasn’t about just Trump conniving with a foreign power, but the entire leadership of the Republican Party. Because that’s not just a presidential election being affected. Nor is it then just about Clinton and the many people on the Left who seem glad that the Russians harmed her and want to deny her an excuse for losing.

    We know that Obama tried to get GOP Congressional leaders to take a joint action with him to stop the Russian activities, and they refused.

    Because they knew.

  4. At the 20 minute mark of this YouTube recording of Bill Maher’s program from last night Salman Rushdie points out the Russians were working to promote Jill Stein in Michigan and she got 51,000 votes there.

    link to

    • One Green Party of Michigan official told me that for every three votes Green Party nominees receive the rule of thumb is that two are siphoned off from the Democrats and one from the Republican Party nominees.

      Ralph Nader stopped running for president under the Green Party ticket after many pointed out that his Florida candidacy in 2000 drew so many votes from Albert Gore that he likely swayed the presidency over to G.W. Bush – who won Florida by only a few hundred votes.

  5. The on-going RUSSIAN ATTACK is a complex, convoluted effort exploiting every freedom we enjoy, using them against us.

    Since our national defenses are HARDWARE BASED as is our leadership, existing defenses become totally useless with this form of WARFARE which machinates through exploiting ease of access and inherent American naïveťe – not bayonets and bullets.

  6. Really the only thing new about this was that the campaign of disinformation, misinformation, ethnic and racial divisions was conducted by foreign government sources. This sort of thing has been going on as long as I can remember, and I daresay probably as long as we have had a democracy. The means change withe times – now it is Facebook and Twitter – but the tactics are the same. Democracy requires an informed voting public capable of exercising critical reading and thinking skills.
    BTW. no one disputes the fact that the damaging info hacked from the DNC was actual and real.

  7. if we let “dark money” into the electoral process, yes we may have or let foreign entities or goverments interfere in the political process.
    I was in Miam
    i for several days before the election, and was amazed at the amount of political advertisment between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump.; something that we do not see in south Texas since most of the time this area votes democrat. I do think that well managed advertisement, together with a lot of dark money got Mr. Trump elected, more than the intervention of foreign nationals.

  8. Although your analysis notes Clinton’s shortcomings as a candidate, it fails to mention the real culprit: the technology behind voting machines which has been manipulated to affect election outcomes in this country. The electoral process is deeply corrupt as shown in the 2006 HBO documentary Hacking Democracy. Blaming Russia is a diversionary tactic.

  9. It still looks like a lot of Cold War phony-baloney. The typical anti-communist rhetoric now just applied to Russia. The NYT reports that Russian trolls were supporting both Bernie and Trump — anyone but Clinton. Her “no-fly zone” over Syria was just too dangerous and risked a Cuban Missile style confrontation. Anyway, the Russian “interference” is blown way out of proportion and is nothing compared to what the US has done in other countries. We think we’re so special!

    • “……is nothing compared to what the US has done in other countries…..”

      Recall the CIA stealing the elections in Italy in 1949 for the Christian Democrats.

    • Do you just ignore all the clashes between Turks and Iranians and Russians and Americans in Syria now because “anything is better than Clinton”? Do you just ignore Korea completely?

      If Trump is a fascist, then putting one in charge of the US is indeed a special problem. Stalin was, for a while, supportive of Hitler because he thought capitalist democracy (i.e., Clinton) was a greater threat than a fascist Germany whose power was minuscule compared to the military the US has today. How did that turn out? And how could any subsequent Russian leader ignore that lesson?

  10. Re Trump campaign in Michigan:

    Trump’s campaign was brilliantly led by Ronna Romney McDaniel (GOP state chair), Scott Hagerstrom (Trump Mich. campaign vice-chair) and Lena Epstein (Trump Women’s Mich. vice-chair).

    The Trump national campaign one week before Election Day called Ms.Romney-McDaniel congratulated her that their projections would be that Trump would prevail in the Wolverine State by 8,000 votes statewide. This was while “expert” polling groups predicted Clinton would win Michigan by 5-7 percentage points. In the next seven days Trump would personally visit Michigan and campaign heavily.

    Trump actually campaigned in Detroit, shaking hands with minority residents – in addition to the Metro Detroit suburbs, where he aggressively courted blue-collar ethnic voters.

    The state GOP established liaisons with ethnic communities skillfully – one demographic segment – Chaldeans rallied around Trump. An estimated 20,000 Chaldean-Americans became newly-registered to vote in Michigan following a registration drive and “Chaldeans for Trump” helped Trump in Michigan due to his hard line on Muslims.

    Jewish-Americans in Metro Detroit in 2016 were, in significant part, upset at the Obama administration and local Democratic congressional leaders support for the Iranian nuclear agreement and the GOP capitalized on this sentiment.

    Republican activists organized prayer vigils in Metro Detroit churches for Trump the day before the election and Election Day.

    Governor Rick Snyder did not endorse Trump’s candidacy at any time and Lt. Governor Brian Calley withdrew his endorsement of Trump after sex harassment allegations surfaced. The conservative paper Detroit News endorsed the Libertarian Party nominee instead of Trump.

    On Election Day, Trump won Michigan by 10,000 votes – becoming the first GOP presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush in 1988 – who at one point resided in Michigan – to win the state.

    Ronna Romney-McDaniel was later voted the RNC chair, Scott Hagerstrom was appointed the vice-chairmanship of the Michigan GOP, and Lena Epstein is now the front-runner to fill a U.S. House vacancy created by the retiring David Trott. This was resulting from their roles in the “Michigan Miracle” in winning Michigan for Trump in 2016.

    Only three U.S. presidents since FDR have been described as “charismatic”: JFK, Reagan and Obama – Trump is now the fourth. Michigan GOP activists are enamored with his election and with his first real accomplishment – the tax cut legislation.

  11. During the campaign, I had to stop reading Huffpo due to the overwhelming amount of Trump coverage. I remember only seeing 2 articles on Clinton and only 3 about Sanders. I dont watch TV, so I am unaware of what cable news coverage was like, but as far as I have read, that was all Trump as well. I think that if the press, and I am talking worldwide (Guardian, Independent, Al Jazeera) as well as domestic actually focused on other candidates, giving more information, that would have helped tremendously. People are pigeon holed into this candidate or that candidate when there are legitimate alternatives that who, if given airtime and more public visibility, would be able to draw sizable audiences. The support that Sanders achieved shows that. The support that has been shown in the recent state elections shows that. More information was needed, meaning a wider range of coverage. Instead, information was limited to one individual. This continues to today.

  12. Riggins above raises the key question, which is why the Russian government was so opposed to the Democratic Party (they did not only go after HRC).
    And why is the GOP seemingly OK with that? The silence from the Right is deafening.

    • A – It’s not a matter of oppositional preference but more the most gullible and easy to manipulate of U.S. voters and elected officials. States where guns, Jebus and abortion hold sway are the easiest of Russian targets.

  13. The real news in this whole indictment thing for me is how gullible the masses of people are. People went to rallies organized by the trolls. Trolls organized rallies and counter rallies at the same time. And no one asked who the owner of FB pages are even though we are told that their English was faulty!
    I guess that should not be a surprise. Up to the last year of Obama’s reign a staggering percent of people (I think it was up to 30%) believed that Obama was not born in US and/or that he was a secret Moslem.
    I guess, that is always has been the case, aside from nostalgia for a not so rosy past, masses vote for 2 minutes in a cubicle every four years and choose between candidates of two corporate parties the one to rule them for the next four years. The only solace they have is that they can throw the “bum” out in 4 years. That is the only thing that democracy means. And with Citizens United, our democracy better be called one $ one vote and cast even the pretense of one man, one vote.

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