President Donald Trump and his White House team are using some of the same “active measures” to manipulate the American people today that Russian President Vladimir Putin employed trying to influence last year’s presidential election.
“Active measures” was a Soviet Cold War term that referred to Russian security services’ tactics in conducting political and informational warfare to manipulate events through disinformation and propaganda.
Sixty years ago, those measures mainly consisted of radio broadcasts or planted newspaper or magazine stories. Today’s active measures involve placing fake news on the Internet, and then using bots, tweets, trolling — and in some cases even hacking — to generate widespread public interest.
During last Thursday’s Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, experts detailed how Russia spent years developing an American Internet audience. Then, after hacking Democratic Party emails and those of its employees, they systematically leaked them selectively to various websites they supported and to their own news distribution systems – RT (Russia Today) and Sputnik News – along with WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and DC Leaks.
These e-mails, some turned into fake news stories thanks to peppering with disinformation, were then picked up by U.S. media and social networks, eventually reaching, and possibly influencing, millions of Americans.
Today, Trump himself reaches over 27 million people through Twitter, and millions more through Facebook and Instagram. In turn, his appearances on Fox television, plus references to his Twitter feed and stories on Breitbart News, generate mainstream news stories received by additional millions of Americans.
For example, on Friday, Fox News reported exclusively, “The U.S. intelligence official who ‘unmasked,’ or exposed, the names of multiple private citizens affiliated with the Trump team is someone ‘very well known, very high up, very senior in the intelligence world.’” On Saturday, around noon, Trump tweeted, “Wow, on @FoxNews just reporting big news. Source: ‘Official behind unmasking is high up. Known Intel official is responsible. Some unmasked…’”
On Monday, the same story was repeated on Fox & Friends, drawing a 6:15 a.m. Trump tweet: “Such amazing reporting on unmasking and crooked scheme against us by @foxandfriends.”
Earlier on Saturday morning, Breitbart published a story headlined “White House says real story is about leaking, not Russia.” It quoted Trump Press Secretary Sean Spicer telling reporters at the Friday briefing, “There is a concern that people misused, mishandled, misdirected classified information — leaked it out, spread it out, violated civil liberties.”
At 9:34 a.m. Saturday, Trump, himself, tweeted: “The real story turns out to be SURVEILLANCE AND LEAKING! Find the leakers.” That also went out to the president’s 27 million followers, and 11,179 re-tweeted it giving Trump an even larger audience.
“President Trump makes these more effective because he uses a system very similar” to what the Russians have and are doing, Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told ABC News last Thursday after he testified before the Senate intelligence panel.
A former Army officer, FBI agent on a Joint Terrorism Taskforce, and Executive Officer of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Watts and two colleagues have spent the past three years studying the Russian effort. He provided extensive details of how Moscow put Putin’s anti-Hillary Clinton American election active measures campaign together.
Watts told the committee his study began in April 2014 after he noticed a public petition to give Alaska back to Russia appeared on the White House website and quickly gained 39,000 signatures. Watts studied the sign-in posts for the petition and saw bots “tied in closely with other social media campaigns we had observed pushing Russian propaganda months before.”
They had already identified other characteristics of Russian Internet elements including hackers, synchronized Twitter trollers who used similar talking points promoting Russian positions to English-speaking audiences in Europe and North America. In addition, by 2015 they found what they called “gray outlets,” conspiratorial English-language websites, some in Eastern Europe, with pro-Russian editors who sensationalized conspiracies and fake news.
In addition, Watts said, the Russians created “personas in Twitter, for example, which makes it look like there are more people than there really are.”
“It’s a Potemkin village strategy essentially that amplifies your appearance. So what they do is they launch those simultaneously as they begin the engagement or push of false new stories usually from RT and Sputnik news.”
The Russians even added individual pictures to their Twitter personas, Watts told the committee, so that “when you look at the pictures, it looks like an American from the Midwest or the South or Wisconsin or whatever the location is.”
In the summer of 2016, Watts told the panel, when the first of the hacked Democratic Party materials “were strategically leaked” to the media by WikiLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and DC Leaks, they had the final element of their U.S. influencing system.
He used as an example July 30, 2016, when they “watched as RT and Sputnik News simultaneously launched false stories of the U.S. air base in Incirlik, Turkey being overrun by terrorists.” It was immediately picked up by pro-Russian social media aggregators and resulted in over 4,000 tweets in the first 78 minutes via accounts they had tracked over two years.
Watts explained the real facts were “a small protest gathered outside a gate [at Incirlik] and the increased security at the airbase sought to secure the area prior to the arrival of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.”
Russia’s goal that day was to convince Americans a U.S. military base had been overrun in a terrorist attack by gaming “the social media systems such that such a high volume of content being pushed at the same time raises that into the trends that you’ll see if you look at Facebook or Twitter or whatever it might be.” At that point, “mainstream media has to respond to that story,” Watts said. “When mainstream media responds to it or just looks at it without even commenting on it, it takes over organically and you’ll see it move around the Internet like a virus.”
Watts said that on August 14, 2016 Trump’s campaign manager at that time, Paul Manafort, cited the fake Incirlik story as a terrorist attack to undermine the Democrats’ theme that terrorism was declining.
Watts also called attention to Trump’s own claim that the election could be rigged. “That was the No. 1 theme pushed by RT [and] Sputnik News white outlets all the way up until the election.”
Watts also cited the time when at an October campaign rally, “Trump stood on a stage and cited a — what appears to be a fake news story from Sputnik News that disappeared from the Internet.”
I actually wrote about that Oct. 10 Trump rally in Wilkes-Barre, PA, in an Oct. 18, Cipher Brief column. Referring to Hillary Clinton’s friend Sidney Blumenthal, Trump told that rally audience that “sleazy Sidney” had written that “she [Secretary Clinton] is now admitting [in a hacked e-mail] that they [the Obama administration] could have done something about Benghazi.”
Trump was reading from a Sputnik-released fake story that misinterpreted a phrase attributed to Blumenthal that was actually written in a long, analytical piece on Newsweek’s website by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. When Trump referred to it, Sputnik had already deleted the story from its website after Eichenwald published a blog saying he, not Blumenthal, wrote the phrase Trump quoted.
When it came to the U.S. election, the hacked Democratic emails provided the content. Then, Watts said, the Russians had to “gain the audience, build the bots, pick out the election and even the voters that are valued the most in swing states and actually insert the right content in a deliberate period.”
Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) referred during the hearing to reports “that in the last week of the campaign in certain precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania there was so much misinformation coming talking about Hillary Clinton’s illnesses or Hillary Clinton stealing money from the State Department … It completely blanked out any of the back-and-forth that was actually going on in the campaign.”
That is one issue the intelligence panel is pursuing in its investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Meanwhile, according to Watts, the Russians are still working their active measures.
“Right now,” Watts told the senators, Russian-directed “accounts tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they know he’s online and they push conspiracy theories. So if he is to click on one of those or cite one of those, it just proves Putin correct, that we can use this as a lever against the Americans.”
In addition, Watts said, “Russia has provided any authoritarian dictator or predatory elite equipped with hackers and disrespectful of civil liberties a playbook to dismantle their enemies through information warfare.”
Trump has adopted some elements of Putin’s operation, but an active Congress, an inquisitive media and a wiser public are all needed to make sure use of the entire playbook can’t happen here.