During the course of this series, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss some of the same issues in my postings with people outside of the blog and classroom. Occasionally, I would run across someone who would take offense to my ideas, who would assume my belief Russian fake news exuded a great influence over our last election infers I believe Donald Trump colluded with the Russians.
And though I informed them I never made that assertion, that my point had nothing to do with Trump and fake news and everything to do with the Russians and fake news, many of them still could not, or would not, make the connection, or rather, the disconnection. Granted that Trump was the benefactor of the Russian’s interference in our elections, but pointing that out doesn’t also point at Trump as being partner to the Russians’ actions. That’s just not the issue.
The issue as we can clearly see in recent news published just the last month or so, is that the Russians have taken their success in influencing our country’s elections and imported it for use in recent European elections. In this posting, the last of the series, I take a look at the bigger picture of Russia transforming fake news into a global weapon for influencing democratic elections to their liking.
Fake news is a relatively new term; however, fake news is nothing new. A more familiar term for fake news is disinformation, which has been around for a long, long time, and it is the term I’ll use in place of fake news in this post. The Russians are very familiar with disinformation, it was a major part of their arsenal during the cold war. It should be no surprise that Putin, an ex-KGB man, has “retooled” the disinformation dissemination machine into a stealth operation.
Laura Reston, managing editor of the New Republic, wrote an article on that very subject. I might not normally cite the left-leaning publication, but I have yet to see right-leaning publication get beyond the “Trump and the Russians is fake news” mantra, let alone embracing the idea that it’s not about Trump, but the Russians manipulating our elections. She explains, amongst other relevant points, how the Russians use disinformation to create confusion about what is and is not real, what is and is not fake, which works to their advantage.
They use numerous paid bloggers to create and publish disinformation by tweets, social media, and comment sections of legitimate publications, often mixing disinformation with real news, enrobing falsehoods in the truth, to make it appear credible. The credible-looking stories are presented on Russian operative news sources and websites as legitimate news from reliable western sources. This fine-tuned operation can be deployed quickly whenever desired, spreading disinformation within a targeted audience and influencing them to react in a way favorable to the Russians.
And the Russians don’t save their efforts for the Americans alone, we have seen them interfering in recent elections Europe. Last April, Anne Applebaum, columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece describing the interference Russia created in a recent Dutch referendum vote. Prior to the referendum, the EU was slated to sign an innocuous trade agreement with the Ukraine. However, a conspiracy theory based website managed to get the necessary number of signatures for a referendum to see if the Dutch people were in favor of the deal. In the time leading up to the voting, the Russians had successfully manipulated the electorate to turn down (a “No” vote) support of the treaty.
According to DW.com (Deutsche Welle, a credible German news source), to achieve this goal, the Russians used fake news and hacked Dutch government officials’ email accounts to persuade fringe voters against backing the Ukrainian agreement. DW claimed the successful Russian interference was practice for two more important upcoming elections in France and Germany.
Just weeks before the French presidential election (April 23 and May 7), French email and social media accounts were inundated with fake news. The leading candidate (running in opposition to the far-right candidate) had his office computers hacked. The leading suspect, the New York Times reported, was the Russians.
So alarming was the recent French and American election interference, that Germany and the U.K., having their own elections shortly, are worried the Russians may attempt to interfere and produce results favorable to them. Beyond the United States, Germany, France and Holland, Russians have interfered in the elections of Ukraine, Austria, Norway, and Bulgaria, according to Newsweek, using similar techniques and for the same purpose.
The Russian threat is obvious and it isn’t Donald Trump, regardless if he colluded with the Russian or not, it’s the way they have now made fake news, disinformation, an accurate and precise weapon in the new cold war. We all thought of cyber-war as hacking into the electrical grid or large banks, a hi-jacking of data, something understandable and obvious as deceptive. Who expected that cyber-warfare would include psychological interference and manipulation as a means to an end? Why the Russians did and that is the greatest threat to our democracy, perhaps more than president Trump.