What Vladimir Putin Learned From Roger Ailes

A couple of weeks ago, Josh Marshall wrote about “how Russia’s new defense doctrine is like Fox News.” He pointed out that because of Russia’s economic weakness, they can’t engage in the world via military muscle and have, instead, focused on the asymmetric warfare of psy-ops and disruption campaigns.

As  Neil MacFarquhar writes, this goes beyond the possible hacking of the server at the DNC that we heard so much about just before the Democratic Convention. He begins with an example about how Sweden was bombarded with “a flood of distorted and outright false information on social media” as the country was considering whether to enter into a military partnership with NATO. We also know that the same kind of campaign was launched in Britain to spread misinformation about membership in the EU. He points out that Russia uses both conventional media sources – Sputnik and RT – as well as covert channels that are hard to trace.

When it comes to covert channels, you’ll want to read this fascinating piece by Adrian Chen titled simply, “The Agency” to get a picture of what is happening. Chen went to St. Petersburg, Russia to track down one of the locations that seemed to be the source of bizarre stories here in the U.S. about a non-existent Ebola outbreak and a refinery natural disaster. In the end, Chen’s digging into this story wound up leading to him being an actual target of a misinformation campaign.

You may wonder why Russia would want to spread false stories about things like an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. MacFarquhar explains the goal.

The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya, or Russian disinformation, experts said, is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis…

“The dynamic is always the same: It originates somewhere in Russia, on Russia state media sites, or different websites or somewhere in that kind of context,” said Anders Lindberg, a Swedish journalist and lawyer.

“Then the fake document becomes the source of a news story distributed on far-left or far-right-wing websites,” he said. “Those who rely on those sites for news link to the story, and it spreads. Nobody can say where they come from, but they end up as key issues in a security policy decision.”

Although the topics may vary, the goal is the same, Mr. Lindberg and others suggested. “What the Russians are doing is building narratives; they are not building facts,” he said. “The underlying narrative is, ‘Don’t trust anyone.’”

While Josh Marshall’s piece about all this focused on similar motives for that led to the formation of Fox News and Russia’s disruption efforts, this is what struck me about the similarities. The focus is not on facts, but on building a narrative of distrust – especially in the media. Let’s take a look at how they do that. Here is an example of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange being interviewed on RT:

I noticed that one because it was shared on Facebook by someone who is a huge Trump supporter. It’s been interesting to note how many times he shares stories that either originate at RT and/or have clear Russian points of view.

If you watch that video you’ll see Assange creating a whole false narrative about why Hillary Clinton chose Tim Kaine (rather than Bernie Sanders) as her VP running mate. He has a few actual events that he spins into a story that has absolutely zero factual basis. I could do the same thing and suggest (as I’ve seen some actually do) that Assange recruited Edward Snowden to steal secrets from the NSA which were then passed on to China and Russia. In doing so, I could spin a few real events into an explosive story of subterfuge without any actual facts to back it up.

This is the more nefarious side of the “merchants of doubt” that we’re seeing so much of in the media these days. In too many places it has gone from being a Fox News phenomenon to standard practice. All one has to do is tell a explosive story that is wrapped around some actual events and claim that you are simply concerned about the questions that are raised or the “appearance of corruption.” Facts that prove/disprove the narrative are unnecessary. It is very reminiscent of how Heather Digby Parton described the efforts of the group Citizens United.

Citizens United became a clearinghouse for all this shady material, alternating between spoon feeding enticing tidbits to the press and dumping vast amounts of incomprehensible material that sounded bad but ended up being misleading at best when the facts were untangled. This was the essence of ’90s-style “smell test” politics in which many people observed the sheer volume of complicated accusations, threw up their hands and assumed that where there’s this much smoke there must be a fire somewhere.

This is precisely why, over the weekend, Paul Krugman wrote that Hillary Clinton is getting “Gored.” The difference this time is that it is not just Fox News and right wing media that is priming the pump. They now have a partner in Vladimir Putin. If you doubt that, take a look at what Adrian Chen said about what is happening with the social media accounts he’s been tracking for a while now that led to his original story:

Because we value freedom of speech and the press, there is no acceptable way to stop this sort of thing from happening. The best defense is to always look for and demand the facts before buying into a narrative. That’s exactly what we’ve been trying to provide here at the Washington Monthly…and will continue to bring to the table.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.