The History of Kompromat Both Here and Abroad

With the publication of the Steele dossier, many Americans were introduced to a new word: kompromat.

Kompromat is a Russian squishing together of two words: “compromising material,” which Americans refer to as “blackmail.”

But Amanda Taub tells us that most people’s understanding of that word is too narrow.

In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.

And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia…it is a common feature of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian nations around the world.

Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.

That broader view of the term struck me as something we’ve been hearing a lot about lately. Jochen Bittner uses a word coined by the East German Stasi, “zersetzung.”

What Russia does today is very much the digital version of what we Germans, before 1989, termed “Zersetzung.” The term is hard to translate, but it’s best described as the political equivalent of what happens when you pour acid on organic material: dissolution and disintegration.

The methods of Zersetzung are to cast doubt on the basic norms of the Western liberal order and its institutions; to distort and thereby discredit the purposes of the European Union, NATO and the free-market economy; to erode the credibility of the free press and free elections. The means of Zersetzung include character assassination and, through the spreading of lies and fake news, the creation of a gray zone of doubt in which facts struggle to survive.

Neil MacFarquhar calls it “dezinformatsiya.”

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…

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.’”

Peter Pomerantsev distinguishes this from the kind of propaganda that is often associated with information warfare.

The new Russia doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action…

The point of this new propaganda is not to persuade anyone, but to keep the viewer hooked and distracted—to disrupt Western narratives rather than provide a counternarrative. It is the perfect genre for conspiracy theories, which are all over Russian TV…

Ultimately, many people in Russia and around the world understand that Russian political parties are hollow and Russian news outlets are churning out fantasies. But insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.

Lest we think this all started with Russia, I would remind you of what Paul Glastris wrote a few months ago about the “merchants of doubt.”

…there is phrase for those who insist on keeping a controversy going long after enough facts are in to draw reasonable conclusions: “Merchants of Doubt.” The label comes from the book about a loose group of scientists who helped corporate and conservative political interests sow doubt in the public’s mind regarding the certainty of the science linking tobacco to lung cancer and fossil fuels to global warming. It’s the same strategy creationists use when they lobby school boards about gaps in the fossil record and how it’s important and fair-minded to “teach the controversy” about evolution.

That was in response to the media’s insistence on what Matt Yglesias called the “assumption of corruption” in regards to the Clintons.

The perception that Clinton is corrupt is one of her most profound handicaps as a politician. And what’s particularly crippling about it is that evidence of her corruption is so widespread exactly because everyone knows she’s corrupt.

Because people “know” that she is corrupt, every decision she makes and every relationship she has is cast in the most negative possible light.

Much of that was fueled by the strategy Steve Bannon implemented to “weaponize a story” by selling it to mainstream media through his Government Accountability Institute – as they did with the book “Clinton Cash.”

But Bannon was simply building on the decades of work along those lines by groups like 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.

A precise definition of each of these activities might point to some differences among them. But overall, any attempt to explain what just happened in the 2016 election that doesn’t take all of this into account is seriously off the mark. And now, these same forces are at work against Angela Merkel in Germany’s up coming election. If you needed any proof…there’s this:

That is why President Obama, in his farewell address, said that this is a threat to democracy.

In the course of a healthy debate, we prioritize different goals, and the different means of reaching them. But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information, and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter — then we’re going to keep talking past each other, and we’ll make common ground and compromise impossible.

The answer to that threat is multi-faceted. But it involves a media that is determined to evaluate facts and provide context to the way these campaigns of disinformation are being used to manipulate them. It also involves a citizenry that is prepared to distinguish between facts and spin – even if it means challenging their own biases. That includes doing so ourselves – not only pointing to the way conservatives are being manipulated.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.