What if Russia lets go of the psyops rope? (Part 1 of 2)

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I wanted to make this post as straightforward and brief as I can, since I think the point is very logical, simple, important and yet so-far unreported in the many, many media outlets covering Russiagate. I wasn’t able to keep it brief, and therefore I’m forced to make my first two-part post. There are just so many reasons why this theory makes sense, I felt they all deserved to be written down and they didn’t fit in one normal-sized post.

The point is this: the most damaging thing Russia could do to the West, to achieve what Russia’s own critics believe are Russia’s goals in the “information war” (discrediting Western institutions and media, sowing chaos and division in Western societies, improving Russia’s image) would be not to fight the covert information war. I think that this is completely obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a minute, and you don’t need any particular expertise to see my point: given that the forces spinning the Russiagate narrative have now snowballed into an unstoppable Juggernaut, the most effective psyop would be to cease all psyops.

1. Nothing will stop American mainstream media from reporting on Russian interference in the 2018 and 2020 US elections – no matter whether there’s any actual interference to report on

The rallying cry of Russiagate is that, regardless of whether any Trump-Russia collusion is found, Russia successfully interfered in the 2016 US presidential elections, both by hacking the DNC and John Podesta’s e-mails and through a social media campaign aimed at “creating chaos” and “sowing dissent.” During the election, the story goes, Russia placed ads and pushed messages through social media on any topic that might be a divisive issue in the US, including Black Lives Matter, gun control, abortion rights — and probably much more.

This interference in the domestic US political debate continues, Russiagate pundits say, with Russia weighing in on 24-hour-news-cycle issues that have no relevance whatsoever to Russia or foreign policy, like the NFL “Take a Knee” controversy.

 

If a member of the U.S. Senate feels safe from ridicule in publicly claiming that Russia is somehow behind a debate that could hardly be more America-specific (football, the national anthem, protests against police treatment of African-Americans), what can’t be blamed on the Russians?

The likelihood that both Republicans and Democrats will throw around accusations of Russian influence in the 2018 midterm Congressional elections has reached 100%. No evidence of actual influence will be required or asked for. If you’re Putin and you want  to discredit the entire U.S. system of government and the entire U.S. political establishment and the media covering them, you could find no better way than to make liars out of all of them. It’s not as if there are actually any pro-Russian candidates (with the possible example of Dana Rohrabacher) running for office in 2018, so Russia has nothing else to gain (at least, directly) by interfering, and every new operation would risk exposure.

By phrasing the problem of Russian interference as a declaratory statement (“Russia continues to interfere in US politics”) rather than as a question (“Is Russia still interfering in US politics?”), the Russiagate narrative hands enormous power to the Kremlin, because, ultimately, the only person who decides whether Russia is actually still interfering in US politics is Putin, not anyone in the US.

2. The newfound US government interest in counter-propaganda is a lifeline for the otherwise hurting democracy-promotion industry, and anti-propaganda NGOs are captives of the grant-writing vicious circle, and this can be exploited

Key to the narrative of Russiagate is that Russia has created covert cells and entire institutions devoted to disinformation and sowing discord: Cozy Bear, Fancy Bear, the Internet Research Agency–Russiagate followers know these names by heart and suspect that it’s only the tip of the iceberg. There’s supposedly a huge, sophisticated hidden social media influence operation run by the Kremlin.

This framing of the problem — that Russia has heavily invested money and human resources into trolls, bots and influence operations — is music to democracy promotion NGOs’ ears. Over the past several years, their operations have been shut down across much of the former USSR. After the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring generally failed to produce stable democratic movements, support for democracy promotion and regime change has been on the wane in the U.S. since before George W. Bush left office. With Trump’s “America First” philosophy, USAID and democracy promotion budgets are expected to be slashed.

Most Americans aren’t aware of it, but programs sponsored by USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Broadcasting Board of Governors and other government-sponsored programs and non-governmental organizations employ a lot of people. The Americans who work on democracy promotion, both in the US and abroad, are usually highly-educated, often with a Masters’ degree or Ph.D in International Relations, Political Science, journalism, foreign languages and other liberal arts fields in which it’s hard to find a job with upward mobility. Democracy-promotion programs serve as a feeder for the CIA, the State Department and their contractors, and veterans of these programs have acquired foreign language and cultural skills that are critical for intelligence, diplomacy and developing foreign policy, but are difficult to obtain in America.

Combatting “Russian propaganda” has become a key outlet for the energies of people who would otherwise be on the ground, promoting democracy by training opposition political parties, monitoring elections, identifying scholarship candidates, administering civic society programs and other traditional USAID-type activities. So Russiagate has been a godsend for people whose “industry,” as it were, has been hit hard by changes in policy and budget cuts.

The real problem with this is that “Kremlin propaganda,” at least in the sense of the covert use of hacking, social network trolls and bots and the like, is (assuming the Russiagate narrative to be true) completely under the control of the Russian government. There’s no clear evidence of its existence and no information about its footprint (where it is and who its leaders and employees are). Its alleged activities are virtually indistinguishable from what private individuals, independent hackers and anarchist organizations like Anonymous and 4Chan do online. If it exists in the form the Russiagate narrative says it does, the Kremlin can turn it on and off like a light switch, without anyone knowing.

But that won’t stop the NGOs. It can’t. These are grant-based organizations. As long as there is grant money available to monitor and expose Russian propaganda, there will be NGOs to apply for those grants. Now, you might be thinking — if the Russian propaganda machine gets shut off, then these NGOs will report that. No they won’t. That’s not how grant-writing works. When they apply for renewal of their grants, NGOs walk a thin line of having to report on how much wonderful progress they’ve made, but at the same time pointing out that much, MUCH more remains to be done. It’s a vicious circle, and grant-writing is much more of an art than a science.

That brings us to why this is potentially dangerous: a key element of the Russiagate narrative is that Russia has deep understanding of the inner workings of American institutions. Let’s assume that’s true–so the Kremlin would also know that, once the institutional battle against “Russian propaganda” begins, it will never end. Putin has the power to snap his fingers and make the entire Western campaign against Russian covert info ops a complete sham. And that’s exactly what a sneaky spymaster would do.

The reason that this obvious point doesn’t occur to American info warriors is not just that they’re self-interested; they also can’t help but impose their own reality and worldview on a foreign culture and system of management.  In the US, once a program is approved or a bureaucracy is formed, this creates a self-perpetuating constituency that then lobbies to maintain and expand that program or bureaucracy. That’s not how it works in Russia. Whole departments and institutions can be reorganized or abolished with no warning. The power to make decisions in Russia is much more raw and absolute.

Russia’s “propaganda machine” isn’t an aircraft carrier that takes miles to maneuver. It’s a submarine that can stop on a dime, dive deep and stay below the surface for months or years. However, America’s counter-propaganda machine is an aircraft carrier. It’s big, loud, out in the open and hard to stop or turn around. Expect the Kremlin to take advantage of that.

3. The US will respond to Russiagate by regulating content on US-based social networks, doing the Russians’ work for them by discrediting and weakening a medium the Russians have long regarded as a powerful Western weapon

The online community of Russian-watching journalists, scholars and assorted nerds has had a lot of fun with the concept of the “Gerasimov Doctrine.” It’s a boring debate if you’re not a Russia nerd, but basically the question is whether a series of statements and writings–by General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of Russia’s combined armed forces, regarding “hybrid warfare”–amount to an official Russian doctrine on foreign policy, subterfuge and warfare.

It’s a silly debate, and really has more to do with Russia experts’ intellectual annoyance at the use of a ridiculous, Ludlumesque term like “The Gerasimov Doctrine” in mainstream publications like POLITICO where it’s only being used to sound cool and inscrutable.

What’s not debatable is the context in which Gerasimov started talking about “hybrid warfare”: he was giving a postmortem of the “Color Revolutions” in Ukraine, the Kyrgyz Republic and Georgia, and the “Arab Spring” that forced out the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia and caused protests in many more Middle Eastern & North African countries. It had been widely and openly reported that accounts on Facebook and other social media, sometimes with US government help, had had a major role in helping organize protests and spreading messages, particularly in the Arab Spring. Gerasimov’s basic argument was that the American government had turned social media into a weapon that could be wielded against Russia without ever firing a shot or making any overtly hostile move. Gerasimov was calling on the Russian leadership to understand and master these tools, or else remain vulnerable to Western plots to foment social unrest and maybe even regime change in Russia.

The Russian government is wary of social media and modern communications technology in general (even ones developed in Russia, like Vkontakte, Odnoklassniki, Telegram and Yandex), but particularly when they’re Western. The Kremlin doesn’t trust Twitter, Facebook and Google because they’re based in the United States, run by Americans, and because, after the Snowden revelations, it’s clear that the data on social media networks is being mined by the US and its allies for intelligence. In the balance of things, if the Kremlin could wish away Facebook and Twitter, it would. So why doesn’t the Kremlin block these networks? Because the Russian people love them. Because it would be bad PR. Because, after Western sanctions and a number of other unfriendly foreign policy moves by the US and its allies, the Russian people are sufficiently “inoculated” against pro-Western views that it doesn’t matter if Russians are exposed to Western messages. At this point there’s no conceivable Western messaging that might result in significant political changes in Russia — and the Kremlin’s most powerful domestic political foes, like Alexey Navalny, actively distance themselves from the United States.

Attempts to place social media content under the regulation of the US government will backfire, possibly even driving those companies out of the US or even destroying them, if not their market valuation.  Here’s the thing: social media networks are resource companies. Their resource is access (intimate access) to human beings. Their valuations are based on their number of monthly active users.  Just as an oil company goes where the oil is, a social media company has to go where the people are.

There are only 320 million men, women and children in the United States. Although Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media are based in the US and benefit from being part of the Silicon Valley community, the fact of the matter is that the United States only has about 5% of the world’s population, and social media penetration in the US is already high, to the point of saturation. American social media networks have to grow internationally if they will grow at all, and if they don’t grow, they’ll die, just like Friendster, MySpace and other social media that came and went before. Think about it: is it more likely that Twitter will be around 120 years from now, like Coca-Cola, or that a regulated, mediated Twitter will be replaced by a non-US competitor offering more freewheeling debate and interaction within just a few years?

If the content on US-based social media is perceived as being censored, filtered or controlled by agents of the US government, it will kill US-based social media. What government on Earth trusts the United States government to control the flow of information to or among its citizens? Google, Microsoft, Facebook and other US tech and data companies already face regulatory challenges and problems in Europe, which is supposed to be full of America’s closest allies. What kind of problems will they have if the US starts requiring monitoring and censorship of content?

Also, the idea that the US can close itself off to “foreign political interference” is absurd, and is in direct conflict with the fact that US politics and laws have worldwide reach. Should people in other countries not share messages about who should be the president of the United States, when this is something that can potentially affect the lives of everyone on Earth? Is it conceivable that people in other countries might even think that their ability to participate in this debate over social media tends to even things out? Why should the votes of 60 million people decide something that affects over 6 billion people? Why should Americans get to post their opinions on other countries’ politics, but the rest of the world can’t comment on American politics? What is a message that could potentially change political views and influence elections, anyway? These are questions that will come up if firewalls are installed that prevent Americans from seeing political messages originating abroad.

According to the Russiagate narrative, the United States political system, being as open as it is, combined with the high penetration of social networks, is uniquely vulnerable to social media psyops. There’s a case to be made for that, particularly because knowledge of English and American culture is much more widespread outside the United States than, for example, knowledge of Russian language and culture outside of Russia.

Your average Moscow high school student has studied English since first grade, has grown up on American TV, music, video games and movies, and could probably easily pass for an American in casual interactions on social media. At the same time, even an American who was born in Russia and brought to the US, growing up in a Russian-speaking home, probably couldn’t pass for a Russian on social media. That person would’ve missed years of slang, pop culture and politics. Very, very few Americans have the knowledge and skills to create a social media account with a Russian name and have any influence over Russians in Russia. Such a person would be a highly trained specialist whose abilities would be wasted on such a stupid task.

Nevertheless, the Kremlin (but not ordinary Russians) would welcome the downfall, discrediting or Balkanization of US social networks. They consider it a potent weapon that might be used against them someday.

4. The Western narrative of near-superhuman Russian “sophistication” in social media-based psyops can only be upset by ongoing actual active measures, which have been of low quality in reality

In the absence of convincing evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and with the DNC and Podesta hacks already old news that has been reported from every conceivable angle, the emerging story of Russiagate, the one generating the most/only breaking Russiagate headlines, is that the Kremlin ran a “sophisticated” campaign across multiple social media platforms that was targeted at exactly the demographics that decided the 2016 election.

If Russiagate hadn’t jumped the shark before, this is the part that seems to be designed only for true believers. It’s hard for anyone with a skeptical bone in their body to accept that the 2016 election was swung because Russia successfully exploited Pokemon Go! or videos on YouTube purporting to be made by African-American activists that got less than 100 views each.

And this has been conflated with a new idea, arising out of the underwhelming nature of the Russiagate evidence — that Russia might be guilty of “attempted influence” and that’s enough to, uh, “do something” about it.

But of what we’ve been given in terms of specific examples of Russian political info ops in America, it’s all quite lame, with the exception of the DNC and Podesta hacks/leaks (assuming the Russians orchestrated this). In the case of DNC and Podesta, that’s not really a consistently repeatable feat, and also hard to counter: if hacked, authentic material appears that could have impact on US politics, history has shown that all media will feel compelled to report on it no matter where it came from. And what if, theoretically speaking, the Kremlin releases the pee tapes right in the middle of some international crisis being handled by Trump? That would be the most direct possible interference in US politics, and yet every US media outlet would gleefully provide 24/7 saturation coverage of it.

Original content is much harder to produce, and none of the original content attributed to Russians appears to have been sophisticated or effective in any way. Which makes sense to anyone who lives in Russia and is exposed to the Kremlin state media machine on a daily basis — Kremlin attempts to influence their own people in their own language are regularly mocked as amateurish and unintentionally hilarious.

If you’re Putin, now having been talked up by Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans as a psyop mastermind, you’re not going to disabuse anyone of the notion that you’re a genius. Russia is the country of the Potemkin village, where appearances of power and competence are more important than the often-disappointing reality. The Russiagate mythology is that the Kremlin, on a shoestring budget and using few enough people that the operation couldn’t be detected, was more successful in influencing Americans than Hillary Clinton’s billion-dollar campaign, supported by an army of consultants and pollsters, the entire Democratic Party apparatus, nearly the entire US media corps and political establishment. Putin’s enemies are spreading the message that he’s 10 feet tall and bulletproof, and he’s not going to prove them wrong by unnecessarily exposing the fact that the Russian propaganda machine is not very good at convincing people of things.

5. Running an ongoing influence operation totally contradicts the very logic of covert operations and risks destroying the greatest success of Russia’s alleged election interference: deniability, doubt and partisan divide over whether it even happened

The Russiagate narrative is that, aside from RT and Sputnik (whose following in the US is tiny and their influence negligible) the Kremlin influence machine has operated covertly, particularly during the 2016 campaign. The reporting on Russiagate is framed as being a steady drip-drip of revelations of previously unknown, hidden operations being brought to light.

Which is no surprise, because Russia’s president is an evil spymaster. Secret sinister operations come second nature to him.

So let’s assume that’s all true: Russia’s 2016 election interference was run as a top-secret covert operation ordered directly by Putin, a seasoned intelligence officer for whom spy games come as second nature. It makes no sense, then, to expect it to continue or to happen again any time soon.

Here’s an illustration. Although I don’t think the Steele Dossier‘s Trump-Russia collusion story is borne out by the verifiable facts,  I do think it’s intended to be a facially plausible spy story. By “facially plausible” I mean that if you were given the Steele Dossier to read, and you didn’t have any outside facts to compare it to, it has an internal logic consistent with what people are familiar with as how covert operations are run.

The part of the Steele Dossier that most directly contradicts the ongoing Russiagate narrative (and hence, the part that’s never reported on) is where, in December 2016 (i.e., after the Trump-Russia plot to elect Trump had succeeded), Trump’s people met with the Russians to discuss how to wind the operation down and cover their traces.

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This part of the narrative, which Steele apparently wrote for free (no one was paying him after the election), is a necessary epilogue to the spy caper: the operatives cover their tracks and slip away. Necessary because it’d be a pretty shitty spy novel if the spies keep running the same operation after it’s already succeeded and the victims have discovered they’ve been had but can’t prove who did it.

And while protecting the integrity of the US election system is a needed and laudable goal, the Russiagate alarmists sitting there monitoring Twitter to catch the Russians doing it again is kind of like the villains in Mission: Impossible waiting around for Tom Cruise to drop from the ceiling again to hack into the same computer.main_1

From the Russians’ perspective, the most valuable part of the Russiagate caper is that there’s quite a serious rift among the United States elite over whether it happened at all.

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The Russiagate narrative is that the people in the Kremlin, having pulled off the most brazen, successful, efficient election interference operation in the history of the world, right under the nose of (and with the unwitting help of) the Western media–and what’s more, having done it so expertly that there’s no forensic proof that Russia was even involved or that certain parts of the alleged plot even happened–are so fucking stupid that they risk exposure by running continued psyops on the US public to “sow discord” about whether NFL players should stand during the national anthem. That’s completely absurd, and yet, here we are.

[Part 2 to follow]

 

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