Don't blame technology
The shock of the recent presidential election in the United States and the seemingly unstoppable ascent of anti-establishment movements in Europe, together with a loss of trust in traditional media, have led many to believe that there must be an easy explanation, something or someone to blame. Many have begun to blame technology – either Facebook and the “media bubble” that reinforce people’s radical views; or the technology that spreads fake news and conspiracy theories, promoted by sites like Breitbart; or disinformation techniques, which are employed by pro-Kremlin media and propaganda outlets.
This raises two fundamental questions – first, is the technology of the Internet to blame? And second, how is it that Russian leaders, well known for their failure to understand the nature of social media and the Internet (Vladimir Putin famously said that the Internet was built by the CIA and is still under American control), have found a way to use network technology against western democracies?
In his excellent book Backstory, Ken Auletta tells a remarkable anecdote about the 43rd President of the United States. On a sunny August day, in Crawford, Texas, George W. Bush held a barbecue for the press corps. The president never hid the fact that he was not much of a television news watcher or a newspaper reader, apart from the sports section. “How do you know what the public thinks, then?” a reporter asked, according to Bush aides and reporters who heard the exchange. To which Bush replied, “You’re making a huge assumption – that you represent what the public thinks.” The year was 2003, Bush’s approval rating in August of that year was almost 70 per cent, and Facebook’s founding was still months away – in February of the following year.
In the early 2000s the mainstream media lost much of their readers’ trust. This dramatic change occurred almost simultaneously in the United States and Russia, though for different reasons.
While in the United States, the war in Iraq was destroying the reputation of the mainstream media, in Russia the very concepts of journalism and the free press were losing credibility. A number of famous reporters who had made their reputation in the 1990s turned out to be fairly corrupt, willing to publish all sorts of stories if paid properly. Perhaps even more salient, for many people in Russian society, journalists and the free press symbolized the liberal values that flooded in after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A large segment of society still felt embittered and betrayed by the West, especially after the Russian economic crisis of 1998, when it seemed that market and democracy, ideas imported from the West, had failed to bring prosperity to Russians.
Putin made good use of this sentiment when the Second Chechen War began in the wake of the horrific bombings of Moscow apartment buildings: independent journalists were accused of working for the terrorists, and the public accepted the notion of government control over the media without protest. The profession of journalism was thrown off the pedestal it had occupied since the perestroika era of the late 1980s.
Disappointment with the mainstream media as the traditional intermediary between society and the authorities grew to striking levels. The concept of media denial was born: now readers wanted to judge events for themselves. Technology arose to aid them in this, and what seemed insane back in 2001, with people sitting in front of their television and computer screens and coming to far-fetched conclusions about the masterminds behind 9/11, became convenient in the late 2000s, with the rise of WikiLeaks and the concept of “data journalism” presented as an alternative to narrative journalism.
Russian bloggers, most of whom had never been journalists but who had some background in PR, became extremely popular. A blogger writing about politics, cars, cameras or anything else could get a million daily views.
And then came the world of social media: a platform to share experiences, data and stories where the credibility of the story was judged not on the reputation of the author but on numbers – of reposts and followers. This brave new world cried out to be exploited.
Were the Russians the first to exploit it? Certainly not.
In March 2011, The Guardian reported on a contract from the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, to develop what was described as an “online persona management service”. This service would allow one US serviceman or woman to control up to 10 separate identities based all over the world. The CENTCOM contract stipulated that each fake online persona must have a convincing background, history and supporting details, and that up to 50 US-based controllers should be able to operate these false identities from their workstations “without fear of being discovered by sophisticated adversaries”. Back then these false online personas were called “sock puppets” – these days they are better known as trolls. The software’s objective was to help US service personnel, working around the clock in one location, to respond to emerging online conversations with any number of coordinated messages, blog posts, chatroom posts and other interventions. As CENTCOM spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said at the time, “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable CENTCOM to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”
But Russia was the first country to turn this weapon into a new way of conducting public policy, first in Ukraine, then in Europe.
When in 2016 the (apparently) same tactics, along with hacking, were tested on the United States, it led to a public outcry that could be summed up by the CIA’s assessment, as reported by the Washington Post: “Russia hacked U.S. Election”. So what did Russia actually do?
“Kompromat”, meaning compromising materials, as a tactic to smear one’s opponents, came into use in Russia in the late 1990s, and back then it was a mix of intercepted phone calls and analytical profiles prepared by the oligarchs’ shadowy security details or the government security services.
In the 2000s and 2010s the tactics of kompromat were widely used against Russian opposition leaders, as well as American and British diplomats. Videos with kompromat were aired on state television channels and posted on the websites of pro-Kremlin media outlets. To take one recent illustrative case, charges of possession of child pornography were brought by the British court authorities against the Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, a critic of the Kremlin living in London. The images were found on Bukovsky’s computer in 2014 during a home search, shortly before he was meant to testify as a witness in the Alexander Litvinenko case. (Litvinenko was, by all indications, poisoned by order of the FSB.) This month, Bukovsky appeared before the Cambridge Crown Court and denied all charges; the trial will resume in January.
But Russian middle classes had already lost trust in the mainstream media and had turned to new media and social networks. The Russian secret services were slow to adapt to the fast-moving world of the Internet. The Kremlin needed a solution outside formal government institutions. Informal actors – a mixture of pro-Kremlin journalists, spin doctors, adventurists and activists from pro-Kremlin youth movements – came to their aid. Soon a many-branched and well-funded empire of websites and online communities was built to promote the Kremlin’s views. This empire needed coordination, and it was mostly coordinated at the level of the presidential administration.
The main elements of this empire were already in place by the late 2000s, and this is what made the social media landscape in Russia so paradoxical during the anti-Putin protests of 2011–12. While the Kremlin’s security services were clearly incapable of controlling social media and preventing them from spreading news about the protests – in December 2011 the FSB still used a fax machine to send a request to the social network Vkontakte, modelled after Facebook, to take down protest groups – the Kremlin’s informal actors were busy spreading kompromat and disinformation about the protests’ leaders. For instance, on December 19, 2011, LifeNews, a website for yellow journalism and Kremlin propaganda, published nine audio recordings of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov’s phone calls, including those in which Nemtsov made candid and sometimes embarrassing comments about his opposition colleagues. The goal was to split the organizers on the eve of a massive protest rally, which failed. In summer 2012 the Gmail account of one of the leaders of the protests, Alexei Navalny, was hacked and his emails were published by a blogger with the nom-de-guerre “Hacker Hell”, head of the online community “FSB brigade for stifling democracy”. Hacker Hell was not part of any government organization, and that helped the Kremlin to maintain plausible deniability.
Thus a dangerous combination was born – outsourcing as a tactic to create plausible deniability, and kompromat as the message that everyone is corrupt, those opposing the Kremlin first and foremost.
In 2014 it was Ukraine’s turn to find itself in the crosshairs – in March the hacktivist group CyberBerkut, supporters of the country’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, who had fled to Russia the previous month, claimed to have hacked the email accounts of Ukrainian NGOs. A trove of emails was published that purported to prove that they were in touch with the US Embassy and received funding from American foundations. The goal was obvious – to portray the activists who had been active during the Maidan revolution as thoroughly corrupt and betraying their country.
In 2016 efforts were directed against the United States. The same combination of hacking email accounts and action by informal actors was used. And again, kompromat surfaced online – on DC Leaks, a website launched specifically for this purpose, and on WikiLeaks – attacking the Democrats as a force opposing the Kremlin.
Western intelligence agencies and security firms suspect the Russian hacker groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear of being behind the breach of the network of the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign and the publication of internal documents. They clearly have the latest (often expensive) technologies at their disposal; they are not working in pursuit of financial interests, instead concentrating on politically relevant information that is in line with the Kremlin’s aims. In the past both groups had successfully hacked government institutions, technology and energy companies and research institutions (among others) in the US, Canada, Europe and Asia.
But this time one thing was different: ordinary Americans had grown accustomed to seeing the Democrats as the country’s elitist establishment, not just a political party. Thus the leaks added another layer to the picture of the alleged corruptness of their country’s existing political system (including the mainstream media) that many ordinary Americans already had in their minds.
Does that mean that the US election was actually hacked by Russia? Obviously not. Russian hackers were not capable of hacking the voting machines, and in 2016 no element of the United States’ critical infrastructure was affected by hackers. Furthermore, the operation didn’t actually go as it was intended – as was clear from Putin’s remarks, as well as Assange’s, they had expected the American public to talk about the content of the hacked email accounts, not who had hacked them. Kompromat on US soil proved to be not such a great success after all.
The biggest news was not the content of the intercepted emails but the very fact that another country could interfere in the most important election in the most powerful country in the world.
For months, the mainstream media made every effort to highlight the fact of that interference. But they failed, probably because they had lost an epic battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. They lost to new media that sit between the public and the authorities – WikiLeaks, conspiracy websites, etc. – and have nothing to do with journalistic standards but play on feelings of being suppressed by the establishment.
But it is a major, open question whether Putin and his strategists contributed to this loss.