Russia’s troll factories were, at one point, likely being paid by the Kremlin to spread pro-Trump propaganda on social media.
That is what freelance journalist Adrian Chen, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, discovered as he was researching Russia’s “army of well-paid trolls” for an explosive New York Times Magazine exposé published in June 2015.
“A very interesting thing happened,” Chen told Longform‘s Max Linsky in a podcast in December.
“I created this list of Russian trolls when I was researching. And I check on it once in a while, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff,” he said.
Linsky then asked Chen who he thought “was paying for that.”
“I don’t know,” Chen replied. “I feel like it’s some kind of really opaque strategy of electing Donald Trump to undermine the US or something. Like false-flag kind of thing. You know, that’s how I started thinking about all this stuff after being in Russia.”
In his research from St. Petersburg, Chen discovered that Russian internet trolls – paid by the Kremlin to spread false information on the internet – have been behind a number of “highly coordinated campaigns” to deceive the American public.
It’s a brand of information warfare, known as “dezinformatsiya,” that has been used by the Russians since at least the Cold War. The disinformation campaigns are only one “active measure” tool used by Russian intelligence to “sow discord among,” and within, allies perceived hostile to Russia.
“An active measure is a time-honored KGB tactic for waging informational and psychological warfare,” Michael Weiss, a senior editor at The Daily Beast and editor-in-chief of The Interpreter – an online magazine that translates and analyzes political, social, and economic events inside the Russian Federation – wrote on Tuesday.
He continued (emphasis added):
“It is designed, as retired KGB General Oleg Kalugin once defined it, ‘to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people in Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs.’ The most common subcategory of active measures is dezinformatsiya, or disinformation: feverish, if believable lies cooked up by Moscow Centre and planted in friendly media outlets to make democratic nations look sinister.”
It is not surprising, then, that the Kremlin would pay internet trolls to pose as Trump supporters and build him up online. In fact, that would be the easy part.
From his interviews with former trolls employed by Russia, Chen gathered that the point of their jobs “was to weave propaganda seamlessly into what appeared to be the nonpolitical musings of an everyday person.”
“Russia’s information war might be thought of as the biggest trolling operation in history,” Chen wrote. “And its target is nothing less than the utility of the Internet as a democratic space.”
‘The gift that keeps on giving’
From threats about pulling out of NATO to altering the GOP’s policy on Ukraine – which has long called for arming Ukrainian soldiers against pro-Russia rebels – Trump is “the gift that keeps on giving” for Putin, Russian journalist Julia Ioffe notedin a piece for Politico.
“Life is still not great here,” Ioffe reported from the small Russian city of Nizhny Tagil in June. “But it’s a loyal place and support for Putin is high. In large part, it is because people-especially older people like [Russian citizen Felix] Kolsky-get their news from Kremlin-controlled TV. And Kremlin-controlled TV has been unequivocal about whom they want to win the U.S. presidential election: Donald Trump.”
As such, the year-long hack of the DNC – discovered in mid-June and traced back to Russian military intelligence by the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike – would seem to be the archetypal “active measure” described by Weiss, adapted to modern technology to have maximum impact.
“The DNC hack and dump is what cyberwar looks like,” Dave Aitel, a cybersecurity specialist, a former NSA employee, and founder of cybersecurity firm Immunity Inc., wrote for Ars Technica last week.
That makes sense given Russia’s partiality to weaponizing information – and the digital era’s abundance of hackers for hire.
The leak of internal DNC email correspondences revealing a bias against Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – by WikiLeaks, an organization founded by Russia Today contributor Julian Assange – has divided the American left and made the Republican Party look unified in comparison.
Trump’s seemingly shady financial overtures to Russian oligarchs have since resurfaced, perhaps as evidence that the real-estate mogul or his top advisers may have had a hand in the hack that made his opponents look so bad.
As Ioffe noted in a later piece for Foreign Policy, however, Trump’s own influence among high-level Russian figures may be overstated given the difficulty that he has had throughout his career in securing lucrative real-estate projects there.
It seems, rather, that Trump is more useful to the Russians than they have ever been to him.
Even if – and it’s becoming increasingly unlikely – Vladimir Putin and his intelligence apparatus had nothing to do with the DNC hack, that the mere suspicion has come to dominate American media is a huge propaganda boon for the former KGB operative.
“The very fact that we are discussing this and believing that Putin has the skill, inside knowledge, and wherewithal to field a candidate in an American presidential election and get him through the primaries to the nomination means we are imbuing him with the very power and importance he so craves,” Ioffe wrote.
“All he wants is for America to see him as a worthy adversary. This week, we’re giving that to him, and then some,” she wrote.