The Internet troll factory in St. Petersburg was a surprise to Americans during the 2016 election. In Russia, it was an open secret from its very inception.
Payments Weekly and Free Food!!!
In August 2013, an intriguing posting for jobs in St. Petersburg, Russia appeared on social networks:
“Internet operators wanted! Work in a chic office in OLGINO!!!! (m. Old Village), payment 25,960 rubles per month. Objective: posting comments on specialized Internet sites, writing thematic posts, blogs, social networks. Screenshot reports. The work schedule is selected individually <….> Payment is weekly, 1,180 per shift (from 8:00 to 16:00, from 10:30 to 18:30, from 14:00 to 22:00). PAYMENTS WEEKLY AND FREE FOOD !!! Official or contractual employment (optional). Training offered! ”
Novaya Gazeta, the fiercely independent Russian newspaper, sent one of its correspondents to find out what it was all about.
Their queries took them to an address in Olgino, a historical neighborhood in St. Petersburg.
The Novaya Gazeta reporters were told they would be required to write 100 comments a day on specified articles. As an example, the reporters were told to write that the recently concluded G-20 summit in St. Petersburg was a great honor for Russia.
The goal was to increase the visibility of these articles in the same way that writing reviews on Amazon boosted product sales, the reporters were told. Robots could do the job, but the sites often blocked them so it was decided to have humans do the work.
Within a few years it would be wreaking havoc in elections around the world, but even in its early days, the group had bigger plans.
It was in the process of recruiting people for an even bigger project that would begin in 2014.
The name of the business was the Internet Research Agency.
The Novaya Gazeta reporters were able to figure out who was behind the Internet Research Agency almost immediately because they recognized a former colleague.
Her name was Maria Kuprashevich (Марию Купрашевич).
The reporters knew Kuprashevich because she had been sent undercover to work in the advertising department at their newspaper, Novaya Gazeta.
In fact, Kuprashevich worked in the PR department of Concord Catering, a company owned by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the oligarch known as “Putin’s chef.” Novaya Gazeta dubbed her “Masha Hari” after the famous woman who spied for Germany during World War I.
Prigozhin was a convicted criminal whose connections ran all the way to the top chain of Russian command. Prigozhin had been found guilty of robbery and was a member of an organized crime group that practiced fraud and involved “minors in prostitution,” as I wrote in Trump/Russia:
He served nine years in prison and was released in 1990, opening a hot dog stand as the Soviet Union collapsed around him. He then managed a chain of grocery stores and in 1997 opened a restaurant in an old ship called New Island that became one of St. Petersburg’s hottest restaurants. And it was through that restaurant that Prigozhin not only became wealthy, but fell into Putin’s inner circle.
Russian president Vladimir Putin dined at New Island with French president Jacques Chirac in the summer of 2001. Prigozhin personally served the two heads of state. Putin not only became a regular at New Island, but Prigozhin became the Russian president’s favored caterer, which earned him his derisive nickname. He was awarded lucrative contracts to provide lunches to Moscow schoolchildren and feed Russian soldiers.
In return, the Kremlin called on him to perform jobs that it did not want attributed to the state.
The first Western journalist to take note of the Internet Research Agency was Max Seddon, then writing for Buzzfeed (now with The Financial Times).
Seddon got hold of internal organization documents posted online by anonymous hackers.
Seddon’s June 2014 story in Buzzfeed showed that the organization was reaching far beyond Russia’s borders. In the internal documents were guidelines on posting in the comments sections of Fox News, The Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.
Few, however, were paying attention.
By the time Seddon’s story ran, the Internet Research Agency had upgraded to a four-story office building on Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg and the troll factory was in full operation.
IRA employees known as “specialists” were expected to create false online personas on these sites known as “sock puppet” accounts complete with fake names and photos.
Specialists had to maintain six Facebook accounts publishing at least three posts a day and discussing the news in groups at least twice a day. By the end of the first month, they were expected to have won 500 subscribers and get at least five posts on each item a day. On Twitter, the were expected to manage 10 accounts with up to 2,000 followers and tweet 50 times a day.
“We had to write ‘ordinary posts’, about making cakes or music tracks we liked, but then every now and then throw in a political post about how the Kiev government is fascist, or that sort of thing,” one former employee told The Guardian of London. For this, she was paid 45,000 rubles ($790) a month. English-language trolls could earn up to $1,000 a month.
Working conditions were miserable. Employees were fined for being a few minutes late or not reaching the required number of posts each day. Editors imposed fines if they found posts had been cut and pasted or were ideologically irrelevant.
Another cache of internal documents smuggled out by IRA employees and published by the St. Petersburg publication Moi Region included the following job description:
TROLL. The purpose of the troll is to produce a quarrel which offends his interlocutor. It is worth remembering that trolling is not writing articles to order. It is a deliberate provocation with the goal of ridiculing your opponent.Cited in Information Wars by Richard Stengel
The organization’s paid trolls were being given specific themes to write about that included the United States.
US policies are aimed at achieving a unipolar world. They are ready to destroy any country to achieve their goal.
The EU and NATO act on the orders of the United States. Because of this, Europe cannot establish relations with Russia.
The internal problems of the United States are violence, terrorism, obesity—but they try to teach the whole world how to live!
The only thing America ever gave the world was Coca-Cola and that turned out to be poison.Stengel, Information Wars
Employees told the Russian news site MR-7 that training was provided by a “bearded, intelligent man” who printed out particularly illiterate posts, passed them around and sighed.
Another journalist even managed to film surreptitiously inside the IRA, which looks like any modern office anywhere:
A Troll Abroad
What Seddon other Russian journalists had caught a glimpse of was a much larger story that would only become clear when Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency and its top officials.
According to the special counsel’s indictment, the Internet Research Agency was already planning on interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election by May 2014.
The Internet Research Agency had formed a department that was called, among other things, the “translator project.” Its stated goal was “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The translator project focused on the U.S. population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Two employees traveled to the United States to “gather intelligence” in June 2014, according to an indictment filed by the special counsel’s office. Aleksandra Krylova, the organization’s third-highest ranking employee, and Anna Bogacheva, director of the translator project’s data analysis group, made stops in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.
Prior to the trip, the two women had worked with their colleagues to plan itineraries and purchase equipment, including “cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones.” They also worked on various “evacuation scenarios” and other security measures for their trip.
Another employee traveled to Atlanta, Georgia in November 2014.
A memo distributed inside troll factory shows how they had used the intelligence gathered from the U.S. trip to formulate angles of attack that were sure to produce a deliberate provocation:
The ongoing series of accidents in the United States, caused by the lack of American authorities concern for the safety of their citizens.
We are forming a negative post condemning the policy of the American authorities.
In Texas, a three-year-old boy died by accidentally shooting himself with a pistol found in a bag.
In Houston, a three-year-old boy found a loaded pistol in his mother’s bag and accidentally shot himself in the head. The child was taken to the hospital by helicopter, but it was not possible to save his life.
According to police, the woman left an open bag with weapons on a shelf and for several minutes went into another room. The child somehow took out a bag and found a gun. So far, no charges have been brought in this case, TASS reports.
In the United States, several similar tragedies have recently occurred. So, in January, in the state of Florida, a two-year-old child died by shooting himself in the chest with a pistol, which he found in the interior of the parent’s car. And a few days earlier in Missouri, a five-year-old boy shot his nine-month-old brother from a revolver found at home.
The irresponsibility of the American authorities, not paying attention to such incidents, leads to accidents. The weapons that every US citizen has (practically) are in the public domain and, as a result, fall into the hands of children.
Instead of protecting the country’s citizens from weapons and drugs, US authorities continue to develop aggression around the world, not paying attention to what is happening inside the country.
A Terrorist Attack in Louisiana?
On September 11, 2014, residents in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana got a disturbing text message: “Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM. Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.”
Twitter accounts were lighting up with reports of an explosion at a Columbia Chemicals plant.
There was even a screenshot of what looked like CNN’s home page, with the plant explosion leading the news.
There was a Wikipedia page, a YouTube video of a man showing his TV screen with masked ISIS fighters next to footage of an explosion. But if anybody bothered to check, there was no explosion; the CNN page, the Wikipedia page, the YouTube video were all fakes.
As Adrian Chen revealed in his incredible story in The New York Times Magazine it was a hoax pulled off by the Internet Research Agency.
This was a modern twist on an old spy game, one that was very familiar to the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, the World War II predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency, as I wrote in Trump/Russia:
The OSS didn’t have the benefit of social media, but the operatives in its Morale Operations branch used what they called “rumors” as weapons of war against Nazi Germany. According to a now-declassified 1943 field manual, the OSS developed a special class of gossip called “subversive rumors.”
This form of scuttlebutt could be used “to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources” and “to create division among racial, political, [and] religious” groups within a country. Subversive rumors could be used to “create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports.” The OSS believed that the best fake gossip was simple, plausible, and vivid, the more “strong emotional content” the better. “Rarely can [rumors] by themselves change basic attitudes,” the OSS field manual declared in highlighting the limits of their new word-of-mouth weapon. “Their function is to confirm suspicions and beliefs already latent; to give sense and direction to fears, resentments, or hopes that have been built up by more materialistic causes; to tip the balance when public opinion is in a precarious state.”
The Soviet KGB also understood the nature of rumors. The KGB’s Service A was the unit tasked with running aktivnye meropriiatiia—covert “active measures” designed to sow distrust against the West. One example included developing fraudulent info about FBI and CIA involvement in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Another was Operation Infektion, a KGB-planted rumor that the AIDS virus had escaped from a biological weapons lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Thousands of people were involved in the active measures operations, which were integrated into the whole of the Soviet government, and they surely would have been familiar to Vladimir Putin, who was just beginning his KGB career in 1980, a time when the CIA estimated that the annual cost of the Soviet Union’s active measures program was no less than $3 billion a year. In the 1990s, the United States asked Russia to stop these rumor campaigns, but Sergei Tretyakov, a high-ranking Russian spy who defected to the United States in 2000, said nothing changed. “Russia is doing everything it can today to embarrass the U.S.,” Tretyakov said in a 2008 book, Comrade J. “Let me repeat this. Russia is doing everything it can today to undermine and embarrass the U.S.”
What the Internet Research Agency really represented was a modern Russian version of the old OSS rumor factory and KGB active measures division. Social media gave the St. Petersburg operatives a power the likes of which neither the OSS nor the KGB could have imagined. The OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors; the KGB planted the AIDS rumor in a newspaper in India. The modern influence operative didn’t have to leave his or her desk in St. Petersburg. In the hands of a spy, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were machines for the rapid transmission of rumors. But one needed to flip through the musty pages of the OSS field manual to see how well their creed holds up today, and just how accurately the St. Petersburg troll factory was able to wreak havoc on the American public during the 2016 presidential election.
In February 2016, an outline of themes for future content was circulating inside the Internet Research Agency. The organization’s “specialists” were instructed to post content that focused on “politics in the USA” and to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them).”
The Internet Research Agency’s sock puppet accounts would produce pro-Trump social media postings, pro-Trump Twitter accounts, pro-Trump rallies, pro-Trump political ads.
By September, the IRA was spending $1.25 million a month on operations on “Project Lakhta,” which involved Russian domestic audiences as well as foreign audiences in the United States and elsewhere.
More than 80 people were working in the American part of the translator project by July 2016 and employees were posting more than 1,000 pieces of content per week, reaching between 20 and 30 million people in the month of September alone.
- When you hear of foreign actors making big plans to influence the West, believe them. Information operations are cheap, and they work.
- It’s fairly easy to figure out who is behind these operations, but in Russia it doesn’t matter which oligarch is behind it. They are proxies for the Kremlin.
- Russian information operations test out strategies and themes and spend years refining them.
- Read critically. Verify everything before you trust it.
During the just-concluded G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, President Trump sardonically warned Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay away from the 2020 US presidential election. Responding to a reporter’s question, Trump playfully pointed his finger at Putin and said, “Don’t meddle in the election.” Putin just laughed.
The president might think that the ongoing Russian efforts to interfere in American democracy is all just a big joke. But his administration doesn’t.
It was only a few days earlier that Trump accused The New York Times of a “virtual act of treason” for a June 15 story that revealed that U.S. Cyber Command had placed “implants” — software code that can be used for surveillance or attack — deep inside the Russian electrical grid. Still mad about the story two days later, he tweeted that it was “fake news” and called on the newspaper to release its “phony” sources.
Even Putin was puzzled by the president’s reaction. “I am not sure how we should interpret that — if it means that they disclosed real information or it was a planted story,” he said during his annual “Direct Line” with Russian citizens. “But in any case, we have to respond one way or another; we must understand what this is about.”
Putin was asking the right question. What about the report had prompted the president’s unhinged response? Why was the president so upset about a report that the U.S. government was, after years of inaction, finally fighting back against Russian cyberattacks?
The little-noticed answer lies buried in defense legislation and executive orders signed by Trump himself. Although written in dense bureaucratese, what it says is pretty remarkable: Rather than work with the president when it comes to Russia, Trump’s administration has simply decided to work around him.
Like a parent with a obstinate child, the Trump administration, with an assist from Congress, cut the president out of the decision-making loop on national security decisions involving Russia. The Times, then, was a convenient scapegoat for the president’s impotent fury at his own people.
It’s no secret that Trump has long refused to acknowledge even basic truths about the Russian threat, but the consequences to U.S. national security aren’t so well known.
This definitive report in The Washington Post — based on interviews with more than 50 (!) current and former U.S. officials — described how the intelligence community was structuring the president’s daily brief (PDB) to avoid upsetting Trump.
“If you talk about Russia, meddling, interference — that takes the PDB off the rails,” said a second former senior U.S. intelligence official….
Trump has never convened a Cabinet-level meeting on Russian interference or what to do about it, administration officials said. Although the issue has been discussed at lower levels at the National Security Council, one former high-ranking Trump administration official said there is an unspoken understanding within the NSC that to raise the matter is to acknowledge its validity, which the president would see as an affront.“Doubting the intelligence, Trump pursues Putin and leaves a Russian threat unchecked,” Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, Philip Rucker, Dec. 14, 2017.
For far too long, the response to ongoing Russian cyberattacks was a big fat ZERO. That only encouraged Russia and other countries to wreak havoc in cyberspace.
“The warning lights are blinking red again,” Dan Coats, Trump’s own director of national intelligence warned in July 2018. “Today, the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Then things started to change.
On August 13, 2018, Trump signed a defense bill that basically gave the U.S. military’s Cyber Command a green light to respond to Russia.
The aptly named John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act authorized Cyber Command to take “appropriate and proportional” action aimed at disrupting, defeating, and deterring Russian cyberattacks, including those aimed at our democracy. The bill also allowed the defense secretary to authorize clandestine military activity in cyberspace without prior presidential approval.
The conference report on the bill, written by Republican and Democrat members of both the House and the Senate, was revealing:
The conferees have been disappointed with the past responses of the executive branch to adversary cyberattacks and urge the President to respond to the continuous aggression that we see, for example, in Russia’s information operations against the United States and European allies in an attempt to undermine democracy. The administration’s passivity in combatting this campaign, as documented repeatedly in hearings before the congressional defense committees in the past 2 years, in the judgment of numerous executive branch officials, will encourage rather than dissuade additional aggression. The Congress has worked diligently to ensure that the Department possesses the necessary capabilities and authorities to combat, in particular, these Russian information operations, and this authorization represents further progress toward that objective. The conferees strongly encourage the President to defend the American people and institutions of government from foreign intervention.
Read that again and take a moment to reflect on that remarkable passage.
Two days after signing the McCain defense bill, the president signed National Security Presidential Memorandum No. 13. This still-secret memorandum freed the military to conduct offensive cyber operations “without a lengthy approval process,” so long as they don’t cause “death, destruction or significant economic impact,” The Washington Post reported last year.
Apparently without realizing what he was doing, Trump had just given the go-ahead for the types of operations described in the Times article that left him so unhinged.
Spearheading America’s aggressive response in cyberspace to Russia is General Paul Nakasone, the dual-hatted leader of the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command.
Nakasone has pushed a strategy of “persistent engagement” with our Russian foes in cyberspace. In other words, we don’t sit back and wait for our enemies to attack; we take the fight to them.
Under Nakasone, U.S. Cyber Command has shifted from a response force to a proactive one that meets our adversaries in the foreign networks where they lurk. “If we find ourselves defending inside our own networks, we have lost the initiative and the advantage,” Nakasone told a professional military journal.
Securing the 2018 midterm elections was Cyber Command’s No. 1 priority, Nakasone told Congress, and it prompted him to create the “Russia Small Group.”
On Election Day last year, the Russia Small Group shut down the computer networks at the Internet Research Agency, the so-called St. Petersburg “troll factory” behind much of the social media manipulation during the 2016 election. The Russia Small Group also helped state election officials identify vulnerabilities and improve threat warning and it dispatched forces to beef up cyber defenses in Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine.
Much of its work remains secret, but U.S. senators hinted earlier this year that it was no coincidence that the 2018 midterms were not impacted by Russia. Further proof of the group’s success is the fact that it’s now a permanent fixture at the NSA/Cyber Command, housed in a new, $500 million cyberwarfare bunker at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Few Americans realize that the United States is flexing its muscles in the cyber realm, but Russia is keenly aware of what’s going on. “Vitally important spheres of our economy have been targeted with cyberattacks from abroad,” Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said in the wake of the Times report. An anonymous law enforcement source told RIA Novosti, a Kremlin-owned news outlet, that the Times story about U.S. incursions in the electrical grid is true, although the Russians say they’ve managed to stop the attacks so far. Last fall, Russian trolls and hackers received direct messages identifying them by their real names and warning them not to interfere in the affairs of other nations.
The only one who seems unsure of what’s happening is the president, who may have realized too late what he signed away when he gave his administration the authority to go on the offensive against Russia.
The implications of the decision to take decision-making authority out of the president’s hands are sobering. It was not a decision that was taken lightly.
It reflects a judgement on the part of Congress and the administration that when it comes to Russia, the 45th president poses a threat to the national security of the United States.
In the latest round of sanctions aimed at Russian cyberattacks, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned five companies. Three are connected with one person, a Russian cybersecurity professional named Ilya Medvedovsky.
Call me skeptical.
I don’t believe that Facebook won the election for Donald Trump. That’s the claim put forth in this hagiographic profile of Jared Kushner in Forbes and in many other media outlets.
The traditional campaign is dead, another victim of the unfiltered democracy of the Web–and Kushner, more than anyone not named Donald Trump, killed it.
We see these stories every time a new president is elected. A while back it was Obama’s “data crunchers.” This time, the key to Trump’s victory, Kushner would like us to believe, were computer algorithms that targeted potential Trump supporters with social media to stunning effect.
The secret weapon was Cambridge Analytica’s computer algorithms that figure out who you are based and what motivates you based on all the times you click Like on Facebook, as Cambridge Analytica’s Jack Hansom explains in this video:
These algorithms turned up some surprising findings. Liking the New Orleans Saints mean you’re less likely to be “conscientious,” i.e. do the right thing. And liking the Energizer Bunny means you’re more likely to be neurotic.
So what? Well, one or two of these things don’t tell you much, but the average person has hundreds of Facebook Likes which allows Hansom and his colleagues to build a surprisingly accurate picture of your personality. You can test this on yourself here.
Facebook allows you to drill down to the kind of person in the kind of place you want. (You can even reach “Jew haters” in Idaho if you wish.) Here’s Cambridge Analytica’s CEO Alexander Nix showing how his company’s model could be used to drill down to find every “persuadable” gun rights advocate in Iowa:
It’s very impressive (and very creepy), and it makes for a good story, one that Silicon Valley loves in an everybody-is-stupid-except-for-me way.
But the problem with the claim that Kushner and his machine learning wizardry won the election for Trump is that everybody was doing it. Hillary Clinton had a team of mathematicians and analysts crunching data. Ted Cruz had hired Cambridge Analytica as well, but then he ran into the Trump train.
I may be wrong, but I’d wager the $1.8 billion worth of free airtime that TV networks gave Trump every time he opened his trap probably had a lot more to do with him winning the election than Cambridge Analytica.
Trump knows how to get on TV: He is a promotional genius. What will he say next? He’s a modern day PT Barnum and Jeff Zucker‘s CNN couldn’t get enough.
Setting that aside, the Facebook/Jared Kushner story is still pretty important. And what’s important about it is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller thinks it’s pretty important. Facebook may not have won Trump the election, but it may seriously damage his presidency.
CNN reported Sunday that Mueller, who’s investigating Trump’s links to Russia, had served Facebook with a search warrant. Mueller was interested in the $100,000 worth of ads purchased by bogus accounts that Facebook on Sept. 6 acknowledged had “likely operated out of Russia.”
Mueller’s search warrant for Facebook is a big deal, a former federal prosecutor explains:
Mueller would have had to show the judge that there was reason to believe that one or more foreign individuals committed a crime and the evidence of the crime could be found on Facebook’s servers.
The crime is that foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing money “or other thing of value” (like $100,000 worth of Facebook ads) in connection with an election. It’s also against the law to solicit, accept, or receive such a contribution. (Here is the statute.) And if someone on the Trump campaign knew about the Russian Facebook ads and did nothing to stop it, that is also a crime — aiding and abetting.
Did someone on the Trump campaign know about the Russian Facebook ads. We don’t know yet, but the answer lies in targeting. To put it in Watergate terms: Who targeted whom and when?
Were the Russian Facebook ads and the Trump campaign targeting the same people? And if so, how did a bunch of Russian trolls in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok or where ever know to target, say, black women in Milwaukee or rural voters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, for example?
I tried to ask Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, but didn’t get a reply.
This question intrigues Sen. Mark Warner, the leading Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, as he said on the Pod Save America podcast:
Warner: When you see some of the explanation and some of the fact that it appears that, for example, women and African Americans were targeted in places like Wisconsin and Michigan, where the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play … It was interesting that those states seem to be targeted where the bots — where they could could create a lot of these fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, could in fact overwhelm the targeted search engines that would end up saying on your news feed, you suddenly got stuff that “Hillary Clinton’s sick” or “Hillary Clinton’s stealing money from the State Department.”
I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware really raises some questions. I think that’s a worthwhile area of inquiry.
How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions?
Vietor : I wonder if they just asked Jared [Kushner] like Trump does with all of his questions. We’ll find out.
Warner : We’ll find out. More to come on that.
Sen. Warner thinks it’s a worthwhile line of inquiry, and it’s a good bet Mueller does too. The information Facebook handed over to Mueller included the targeting criteria the bogus Russian accounts used, The Wall Street Journal reported.
An unnamed Trump campaign staffer told CNN that the key to the whole inquiry may be found on Facebook’s servers.
Only Facebook can answer three critical questions: were the same databases used by the Trump campaign and Russian operatives to coordinate targeting of voters; was money used to promote pro-Trump posts, and, if so, how much was spent and by whom; and will Facebook reveal if bots were successfully used to push fake news posts?
Hopefully, Robert Mueller knows the answers.
Have you heard the rumor that Donald Trump is mentally ill? Did you hear that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower? With the help of British intelligence? Or that a child-sex ring connected to Democrats was being run out of a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant?
American society is being bombarded by rumors. Fake news websites push stories like the aforementioned “Pizzagate.” Russian has an army of Twitter trolls who blast out all sorts of wild rumors. Even Donald Trump’s own tweets deluge us with confusing and contradictory information.
It seems awful hard to know what’s true and what’s not these days. Where is the antidote for the epidemic of fake news? Many of us may feel like we can’t even trust our own judgment. And maybe, that’s the point.
The post-truth era, as it’s been called, might feel very familiar to American spies operating behind enemy lines in World War II. Back then, U.S. operatives were coming up with creative ways to damage morale and divide the leadership of Nazi Germany. One of their best weapons was the use of carefully crafted, well-timed rumors.
Rumors were a specialty of the Morale Operations Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor of today’s CIA. One of the most famous of the OSS’ rumor campaigns was “Where Is Hitler?” The OSS would broadcast a fake report that Hitler was supposed to appear at an upcoming rally. When Hitler inevitably failed to show, the OSS would float rumors that Hitler was ill or suffering from a mental breakdown. These rumors spread so widely that they became the subject of articles in American newspapers, including The New York Times.
Creating a loss of confidence in leaders was just one was just one the tricks dreamed up by the OSS Morale Operations branch. Others are spelled out in a now declassified field manual, which is a guide on how to use rumors, forgeries, blackmail and bribery to destabilize a country. What the OSS called “subversive rumors” could be used to cause enemy populations to distrust their own news sources, create division among racial, political and religious lines, to create confusion and dismay with a welter of contradictory reports, and to tip the balance when public opinion was in a precarious state, among other things.
Viewed in this light, fake news seems less a nuisance and more like something that would trouble our intelligence community. And indeed, they do appear concerned. The U.S. intelligence community recently concluded that Russia mounted an “influence campaign” during the 2016 presidential election that blended covert intelligence operations with overt efforts by Russian Government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or “trolls.” Russia influence campaign sought to undermine faith in U.S. democracy and denigrate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In essence, Russia has created a modern version of the OSS Morale Operations branch. Social media gives the modern operative powers the likes of which his or her OSS forerunner could only have dreamed. Whereas the OSS had to send operatives into enemy territory to plant rumors, the modern influence campaign can without leaving home harness the power of social media sites. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are machines for the rapid transmission of rumors.
While the technology behind rumor campaigns has evolved, the nature of rumor itself hasn’t changed much in the 74 years since the OSS wrote its field manual. The OSS defined a rumor as “an unauthenticated, unofficial story or report, represented and transmitted as fact.” This distinguishes it from propaganda, which stamps its authorship on its message. Anybody can start a rumor. Crafting a good one is an art form.
The old OSS characteristics of what makes a good rumor still hold true: A good rumor still must be simple, consisting of a single idea. It must be plausible. It is tied to some known facts, yet is impossible to completely verify. It frequently appears as an “inside” story. The best rumors to spread are existing ones. “In many cases, the most effective rumor policy will be to spread further rumors that have arisen spontaneously in enemy territory,” the field manual advises.
A good rumor must also be vivid. Rumors with “strong emotional content” are extremely effective. (Case in point: the unforgettable, unverifiable story of Trump cavorting in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes.) A suggestive rumor was well adapted to spreading fear and doubt, by doling out limited but tantalizing bits of information that allow the audience to formulate conclusions (“FBI Director James Comey made an unexpected trip to the White House.”)
Robert Knapp, who developed the section of the OSS’ Field Manual on rumors and wrote academic papers on the subject, likened a rumor to a torpedo. “Once launched, it travels of its own power,” he wrote. Knapp had an insight into what gave rumors their power: They expressed and gratified the emotional needs of the community, just as daydreams and fantasies expressed the needs of the individual. Rumors gave sense and direction to fears, resentments or hopes. ”No rumor will travel far unless there is already a disposition among those who hear it to lend it credence,” he wrote in a 1944 paper.
Among the many coincidences involving Russia and Donald Trump, one that goes unnoticed is their mutual grasp of the power of rumor. Trump used rumors to stunning effect in his campaign, beginning with the suggestion that President Obama was born in Kenya. This rumor tapped into deeply-held beliefs about President Obama that many people were not comfortable expressing publicly. Outright racism is unacceptable to most Americans. However, many found the disguised racism of a rumor about the African-American president’s birthplace more palatable. There is frequently a racist undertone to many of Trump’s rumors: Muslims celebrating Sept. 11 in New Jersey, illegal immigrants voting, terrorist incidents that didn’t happen, and so on.
Rumors may also help explain Trump’s appeal. In a recent interview, Time magazine’s Michael Scherer pressed Trump on his use of rumors. “What am I going to tell you? I tend to be right,” the president told him. “I’m an instinctual person, I happen to be a person that knows how life works.” In other words, Trump’s rumors feel true to him, even if they can’t be verified. Trump’s words also feel true to his supporters, almost like an article of faith. He is making a connection on a deep emotional level that, once established, is difficult to break.
However, Trump’s predilection for rumors over facts is dangerous, for it leaves him wide open to manipulation. Unwittingly or not, Trump has spread rumors that originated in Russia. The story spread by the White House that President Obama used British intelligence to spy on Trump and his associates started as a story on RT, the Kremlin-backed propaganda outlet. On the campaign trail, Trump quoted a report that appeared to originate on Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed media outlet. At a March 30 Senate intelligence committee hearing, Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and an expert on Russian disinformation, explained in striking terms the problem with having a rumor-monger for a president:
Rumors do work on the campaign trail, but they are toxic to the presidency. Credibility is one of the president’s strongest assets, never more so than in moments of crisis. Trump seems not to understand that, as president, he is the authority, and the White House is the place where rumors end, not where they begin. If President Trump truly wants to make America great again, he must stop spreading rumors.
If Trump won’t quash rumors, others must do it for him. Many news organizations are now regularly refuting the president’s rumors. This effort harkens back to World War II, when rumors were an even bigger problem then they are now. Robert Knapp, the OSS’ rumor expert, founded a “rumor clinic” in Boston that collected rumors and sought to put and end to them. A column first published in the Boston Herald in 1943 quoted the rumor in italics followed by the word FACT. Rumor clinics opened in many cities, but quickly faded following a clash with the Roosevelt administration’s Office of War Information. Government bureaucrats wanted to smother rumors with facts, rather than call attention to them by singling them out for disproof. (For more on this click here.)
Knapp proposed that rumors could serve as an “index of morale.” They may be a better gauge of the true state of public opinion than any poll or survey. Rumors allow expression of the deeply held beliefs and fears that won’t be repeated to a stranger. A look at the rumors prevalent in American society show we are a deeply divided along racial, political, and religious lines. Many Americans have little or no confidence in our elected leaders. We distrust our own news sources.
In sum, American morale has been deeply wounded. We are much weaker than we think we are.