Last year, one of Donald Trump’s favorite campaign themes was that Americans were being played for suckers. We were “the stupid people,” ripped off by foreigners, immigrants, and refugees. We let them in, they took our money and our jobs, and they raped and killed our people. As president, Trump says he’s fighting back. He’s banned travel from several Muslim-majority countries. He’s set up an office of “Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement.” We’re finally getting “smart.”
All this talk about getting smart and standing up to immigrants is a giant con. Trump is part of it, wittingly or not, but the guy pulling the strings is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. That was the message of Thursday’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Russian interference in the 2016 election: Putin’s propagandists helped Trump, and weakened our country and our alliances, by posing as right-wing Americans and stoking fear of immigrants and minorities.
Most people who believe Putin interfered in the election think this took the form of backstage collusion. But the witnesses at Thursday’s hearings, who have studied cyber operations and Russian propaganda campaigns, said we’re missing the point: The interference was right out in the open. Several witnesses—including retired Gen. Keith Alexander, who led the National Security Agency from 2005 to 2014—explained to the committee how Russia systematically exploits divisions in the United States and other countries. The exploitation is done by online trolls and bots, synchronized to spread messages and false stories that promote cultural tension.
Ethnicity is central to this strategy. In his written statement to the committee, Clinton Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, explained: “Russia targets specific audiences inside electorates amenable to their messages and resulting influence—in particular alt-right audiences incensed over immigration, refugees and economic hardship.” In oral testimony, Watts described how Russian-orchestrated trolls and bots, tracked by his research team, have targeted voters in Europe, “promoting fears of immigration or false claims of refugee criminality.” Eugene Rumer, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified that in Germany, Russia is helping the far-right “Alternative for Germany” party and fomenting anger at Chancellor Angela Merkel for accepting Muslim refugees.
Sen. Marco Rubio—who, according to Watts, was targeted by Russian agents online in last year’s Republican presidential primaries—illustrated the Russian technique with a story:
We all know that Angela Merkel has taken a tough line on Ukraine against Russia. We know that there’s a lot of controversy in Germany around migrants. In early 2016, a 13-year-old known only as Lisa F., a dual Russian–German citizen whose family had moved to Germany from Russia in 2004, told police she had been kidnapped in East Berlin by what appeared to be Middle Eastern migrants and raped for over 30 hours. There was outrage in Germany and obviously protests against Merkel. The Russian foreign minister almost immediately jumped on the story, talking about the need to defend “our Lisa,” and of course this story was spread far and wide by Russian-speaking entities and Russian media outlets. Subsequently, the prosecutors in Berlin announced that they had clear evidence that during those 30 hours she was missing, Lisa F. was actually, in fact, with people that she knew, and a medical examination showed that she had not been the victim of rape.
Rubio gave other examples: “a false story … claiming that Germany’s oldest church had been burnt down by a thousand Muslims chanting ‘Allah akbar.’ Another story claiming that the European Union was planning to ban snowmen as racist.” Again and again, these internet campaigns appealed to white European ethnic and religious anxieties. And all of the stories have been debunked.
When Rubio asked the witnesses whether Putin was trying “to sow instability, pit us against each other as Americans,” Watts answered in the affirmative. Since 2014, Watts said, he and his colleagues have monitored Russian media, trolls, and bots, watching them target “nearly any disaffected U.S. audience.” In one case, for example, they spread reports of “chaos among Black Lives Matter protests.”
Trump is part of the con. From 2011 to 2016, he promulgated the lie that Barack Obama’s birth certificate was fake. Russian state-operated media avidly promoted this fiction. “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures,” Watts told the committee. “He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen, that [Sen. Ted] Cruz is not a citizen. … They parrot the same lines.”
Watts told the committee that among the troll accounts monitored by his team, “The most common words found in English-speaking Twitter user profiles were God, military, Trump, family, country, conservative, Christian, America, and Constitution.” These social cues helped the trolls connect with Americans who might vote for Trump. “If you inhale all the accounts of people in Wisconsin, you identify the most common terms,” said Watts. “You just recreate accounts that look exactly like people from Wisconsin. So that way, whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple, because you see somebody, and they look exactly like you.”
Leftists can be played in similar ways. At the hearing, Rumer observed that Russia had exploited the Occupy Wall Street movement to feed class antagonism and discredit American democracy. Rubio pointed to another case, described by Adrian Chen in the New York Times Magazine, in which Russian-orchestrated accounts circulated a false rumor that “an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police” in Atlanta. Alexander said Russia also targeted supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders in last year’s Democratic presidential primaries.
What experts in Russian propaganda learned from the 1980s was that you could be an honest antiwar liberal and still be manipulated as part of a campaign to weaken NATO. In fact, your sincerity made you a more attractive target. “Soviet-bloc disinformation specialists preferred the art of exploiting what was then called unwitting agents,” said Thomas Rid, a cyberwar expert from Kings College London, in his testimony to the committee. “There is no contradiction, in their reading, between being an honest American patriot and at the same time furthering the cause of Russia.”
Today, it’s conservatives who are manipulated this way. And what Russia exploits, to turn them into devices of American and Western self-destruction, is xenophobia. Your conviction that you’re protecting your country—and that the guy on Twitter who told you about the latest Muslim outrage is a Christian who lives near you—is what makes you an easy mark. And the fake nationalist who promised to save you from being “the stupid people” is either stupid himself, or part of the scam.