Understanding Russian Propaganda

Brad Patty

19 days ago

August 04, 2017

Today Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard points out that Russian propagandists have fallen in against National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster.  McMaster is currently the subject of a lot of criticism from the American right for clearing his Obama-era predecessor, Susan Rice, famous for her Benghazi distortions and for her role in the unmasking scandals.

Is it the case that Russia favors the replacement of McMaster with someone else?  Possibly, given that McMaster is an experienced general whose prowess in the campaign against Al Qaeda in Iraq in the city of Tal Afar is widely regarded. But probably not, given that McMaster has so far recommended policies that Russia broadly favors – especially the continuation of the Iran Deal, which Russia supported and which undergirds their functional alliance with Iran.  McMaster also seems to support staying the course in Afghanistan, which is very much in Russia’s interests for reasons explored in this SSG piece (scroll to “fed and supplied”).

More probably the Russians are playing in our debates simply in the hope of increasing our mutual distrust, and maybe fragmenting the American administration.  Kristol is likely as much a target of this propaganda operation as anyone:  just by noticing and bringing attention to Russia’s propaganda operations in defense of his opponent’s position, he has furthered those Russian ends of distrust and discord.  No doubt this is accidental.  Kristol is trying to avoid having our debate manipulated by Russia, not to aid their manipulation.  He is a man of significant intelligence and education who doubtless has confidence in his ability to avoid being manipulated by propaganda.  All the same, without meaning to he has likely played right into the main effort of the Russian operation.

In this he is hardly alone.  If we remember that dividing us and sowing distrust among Americans is the main effort, it becomes obvious that the Russians have found a powerful strategy in not hiding some of their propaganda efforts. Lots of people are now thinking about Russia all the time, and wondering which of their opponents are secretly Russian agents.  That’s a much greater effect than they could have had by planting all the actual agents they could afford.

Nevertheless, there are real Russian agents.  Though many Americans are doubtless tired of hearing about Russia, Russian propaganda, and claims that Russia supports Trump, it is important to remember that Russia fields a fully professional operation that is aimed at us.  Learning to deal with it is an important part of keeping our nation genuinely independent.

So let’s walk through how this works, and how you can avoid being played by the Russian professionals who would like to manipulate your mind.

WHAT IS RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA?

The Russian government has inherited the Soviet Union’s understanding of war, in which the war for the mind is the first and most important battlefield.  As a result, the Russian propaganda efforts here are central to their foreign policy, military strategy, and politics in general.  Unlike the United States, which always considered physical force primary and which disbanded its Department of Information after the Cold War, the Russians have never lost focus on winning victories by manipulating thought.

As a result, Russian propaganda is completely integrated in all of Russia’s approaches to exerting power.  Their intelligence shop thinks as much about how to manipulate minds as how to gather information.  Do you have a LinkedIn account?  Russia may have read it, and thought about how they can use the connections it reveals in a personalized approach to you.  The same is true of other sorts of social media.  Russian professionals build profiles, they segment markets, they target American minds both individually and in terms of the groups to which you belong.

There are some efforts aimed at tracking Russia’s work here that you can follow if you are interested. The European Union has a strategic communications task force assigned to monitoring and laying out Russian efforts.  Here at home, a former FBI agent named Clint Watts just launched a new effort that may be worth watching, although his approach has yet to be proved.  For those wanting to read an in-depth academic study of Russian ‘fake news’ propaganda in 2016, Stanford has one worth considering.

One thing I have noticed over the years is that Russia has typically employed a different approach in English than in eastern European languages.  In the east, Russia has frequently tried to use blatantly false stories as a major mode of propaganda.  In English language media, that approach rarely works.  The English-speaking world has a robust tradition of free inquiry, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.  Thus, it is harder for blatantly false ideas to spread without being challenged and shut down.  As a result, propaganda targeting English language audiences is much more likely to be true but inflected by political ideology rather than outright false.  As the Stanford study shows, it is also likely to be camouflaged with a lot of truth:  they found that even the outlets they identified as clear examples of propaganda published material that appeared to be completely true almost half the time.

A major take-away from the Stanford study is that people who only listen to their ideological allies are more vulnerable to this inflected propaganda.  They report a second study showing that the vast majority of people who share news on Facebook have no Facebook friends with opposing ideological views (18 percent for conservatives, 20 percent for liberals).  This is a problem for conservatives if they have withdrawn into their social media bubble, but conservatives are accustomed to having their positions challenged by major news organizations, academia, and government.  For those on the American left, it is much more likely that an ideologically inflected bit of propaganda can flourish unchallenged by conservative ideas.

That, I think, explains why so much of the current Russian effort is aimed at manipulating the American left.  If you look at Clint Watt’s site right now, you will see that most of the bots he is tracking are reporting things that would suggest that Russia is taking the side of President Donald Trump.  Here is a screenshot of what his board looks like right now:

If you come away from this with the idea that the Russians are secretly supporting Donald Trump, you’ll find little to challenge your impression in our major press outlets.  Yet the Trump administration is an unlikely friend to Vladimir Putin.  Just this week, Vice President Mike Pence was in Eastern Europe calling for an expansion of NATO, and telling the people of Georgia that the United States will defend them against further Russian encroachment. (Note that the outlet for the last claim is Radio Free Europe, a survivor of the old American propaganda system; after the dissolution of the US Department of Information, it passed to the State Department.)  As mentioned above, Trump administration moves on Iran and Afghanistan likewise are not friendly to Russia.  Though he objected to their constitutionality, too, President Trump just signed extremely punitive Russian sanctions into law.  Those sanctions were passed with veto-proof majorities in Congress just because the Republicans there are sensitive to the idea, so prominent in these Russian propaganda outlets, that their leaders are Russian stooges.  That supermajority in Congress represents a significant bit of blowback against Russian efforts.

Recognize that giving this impression of supporting Trump is itself a major Russian propaganda goal.  It is aligned with the end of sowing distrust and discord.  But Congress is united against Russia, the Trump administration is making strong moves against Russia, and we have a special prosecutor with very broad authority to investigate Russia’s 2016 attempts in any case.  There is precious little danger that some secretive Russian coup of our government has happened or ever will happen.

Russia is only playing at supporting the American right, and they are doing that because that kind of ideologically inflected propaganda is less subject to challenge from major media, academia, or government institutions.  Russia is only playing at being against McMaster, for that matter:  the inside-the-Beltway impulse to stay the course in Obama-era policies sustains a number of Russia’s foreign policy goals.  Listening to what Russia says through these propaganda outlets is just as dangerous for those who think of themselves as enemies of Russia as it is for those who think of themselves as friendly to Russia.  The Russian professionals have successfully manipulated very many people by playing this particular game.

HOW TO AVOID BEING PLAYED

There are three lessons to learn.  The first lesson is to be open to having your ideas challenged.  Conservatives are used to this more than liberals are, but it is very healthy for both sides.  Cultivate relationships with people you can respect who disagree with your politics.  The more we do this, the less ideologically inflected Russian propaganda can pass unchallenged among us.  Also, it’s good as a method of ensuring that your ideas are strong in any case.

The second lesson is to argue from principles rather than relationships or emotions.  It should be obvious that emotions are easier to manipulate than principles are.  The more you are trying to decide “what feels right” than to give an account of just why it is right, the more you are open to attempts to play on your decision-making process.

The same is true of relationships.  Human beings are pretty tribal, and if Russia can suggest to you that someone is ‘on the other team,’ no matter who you are you are likely to reject whatever they say.  If Russia can suggest to you that someone is ‘on your side,’ you are more likely to hear them sympathetically.  Even if you know you’re listening to Russian propaganda, they can still manipulate you in this way by suggesting that they are on your opponent’s side.  Think about the principles of the argument instead of the relationships of the people arguing.

The third lesson is to remember how we won the Cold War.  The Soviets depended on government, the Americans depended on the free marketplace.  The same thing is happening here.  These Russian efforts are run by professionals who have spent their whole lives doing propaganda.  They’re good at it, but they’re still a centralized government agency.  They’re competing against the free marketplace of ideas.  We don’t have a government institution whose job it is to counter this, but already to be effective the Russians have to resort to camouflaging their propaganda with truth while appealing to ideological echo chambers.

Have confidence that we’re going to beat them again, and the same way we beat them before.  We’ll do it as a byproduct of competing against each other.  Just as our economy based on internal American competition outperformed their centralized government planning, our robust competition in the realm of ideas will expose and defeat their most cunning plans.  We’ll win like Americans.

Be of good cheer.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia.