Russia Has Weaponized Fake News To Sow Chaos

“This is a classic disinformation piece, trying to demonize the United States and NATO deployments with distorted figures,” says Ben Nimmo, a fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab run by the Atlantic Council. “It shows that there’s really a globalized market for fake stories. They don’t have to be credible or local—they just have to have the right tone.”

Such tactics were pioneered during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union worked covertly to influence political dialogue in the West. From KGB rezidenturas scattered around the world, a small division called Service A planted false stories in newspapers, spread rumors, and worked to stir up racial tensions. In 1964, a KGB front group helped Joachim Joesten, a former Newsweek reporter, publish a sprawling conspiracy theory about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, which later became the basis for Oliver Stone’s JFK. In 1983, Russian operatives planted a story in a small Indian newspaper claiming that the U.S. government had manufactured the AIDS virus at a military facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland—and Soviet wire services then trumpeted the story all over the world. As U.S. officials later explained in a report to Congress, “This allows the Soviets to claim that they are just repeating stories that have appeared in the foreign press.”

The internet has enabled the Kremlin to weaponize such tactics, making propaganda easier to manufacture and quicker to disseminate than any guided missile or act of espionage. Russian operations like the Internet Research Agency have employed hundreds of bloggers to mass-produce disinformation in the form of misleading tweets, Facebook posts, and comments on web sites ranging from The Huffington Post to Fox News. “Since at least 2008,” Peter Pomerantsev, a Russian media expert, observes, “Kremlin military and intelligence thinkers have been talking about information not in the familiar terms of ‘persuasion,’ ‘public diplomacy,’ or even ‘propaganda,’ but in weaponized terms, as a tool to confuse, blackmail, demoralize, subvert, and paralyze.”

Some of the most unsuspecting targets are American conservatives. During the Cold War, the KGB worked almost exclusively with leftist groups around the world—labor unions, socialist newspapers, and other organizations sympathetic to the communist cause. With the fall of the Soviet Union, however, Russia morphed into an equal opportunity meddler that seeks to inflame everyone from Bernie bros to Trump deplorables. “The point of an influence campaign is to get people involved who wouldn’t otherwise be involved,” J.M. Berger, a fellow at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, recently told ABC News. “A lot of people in the alt-right would not necessarily characterize themselves as being pro-Russian, but they’re receiving influence from this campaign.”

According to Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who tracks the Kremlin’s digital propaganda, Russia began targeting American audiences more aggressively in late 2014. Two news outlets on the Kremlin payroll, RT and Sputnik, churned out stories about chaos among Black Lives Matter protesters and tensions during the Bundy Ranch standoff in Oregon. They also worked to undermine Clinton, fearing she would take a firm stance on Russian aggression in Ukraine. Russia’s network of online “hecklers” and conspiratorial web sites then spread these Kremlin-financed stories through the internet, inflaming American conservatives. “This is the pattern,” Nimmo says. “Vilifying and amplifying. You find unflattering information, and you get all the other parts of the machine to amplify the message.”



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