How Trump and his allies confronted Russian propaganda – Mother Jones

Trump with Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office on May 10Alexander Shcherbak/TASS/Zuma

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The concept comes straight from the Soviet playbook: spreading false information and using it to influence the attitude of the population and government of another country. This Cold War technique of “active measures” appears to have been resurrected with alarming success by the Kremlin in its attack on the 2016 presidential election – and was echoed in the tactics used by President Donald Trump and his associates, according to Clint Watts. , senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Part of the reason active measures worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has sometimes used Russian active measures against his opponents,” Watts, a former FBI agent, recently said. before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Key to this equation have been RT and Sputnik International, two Russian state-sponsored news outlets. Both reach only a relatively small audience in the United States (RT is estimated to reach around 8 million people via cable television), but their impact has been greatly amplified online, with their stories being republished on what Watts calls “gray” conspiracy sites like Breitbart News and Info Wars. Twitter bots and other social media accounts further amplify stories. And in several cases, Trump or his associates directly cited false Russian propaganda in a speech or interview. Here are some examples:

Fake news of terrorist attack on NATO base in Turkey: Last July, RT and Sputnik each reported a fire at the Incirlik base, calling it potential sabotage. Pro-Russian and pro-Trump Twitter accounts spread and amplified the fake news, but mainstream media outlets didn’t pick up on the information because it wasn’t true, as Watts explained in an article for the Daily Beast. Yet in mid-August, Paul Manafort – then Trump’s campaign chairman – turned the story into a terrorist attack, complaining on CNN that the US media was not covering the matter adequately. Politifact refuted Manafort’s claims, pointing out that Turkish authorities reported small peaceful protests outside the base, but no actual attacks on the base.

The case of the fake Benghazi email: On October 10, Wikileaks released a batch of hacked emails from campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account. Around 5 p.m. EST that day, Sputnik News published an article on leaked Clinton campaign emails with the headline “Hillary’s Confidante: Benghazi Was ‘Preventable’; The State Department is negligent. About an hour later, Trump told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania that Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal called the Benghazi attack “almost certainly preventable.” “This was just made public a short time ago,” Trump said. These words were not actually Blumenthal’s and Sputnik later deleted the article – but by then the headline had spread widely.

False claims of widespread electoral fraud: RT has been trying to delegitimize the American electoral process since 2012 by calling the American electoral system fraudulent, according to the declassified version of the report released by the Director of National Intelligence last January. In his Senate testimony, Watts called this the “number one theme” pushed by Russian media. In October 2016, a Kremlin-controlled think tank released a policy paper that said Russia should end its pro-Trump propaganda “and instead intensify its messaging about election fraud in order to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system and to damage Clinton’s reputation in order to undermine her credibility. presidency,” according to a Reuters investigation.

That same month, Trump forcefully pushed the theme that the election was rigged; October 17 Trump tweeted “Of course, large-scale voter fraud occurs on and before Election Day. » The sources cited by his campaign were all debunked by Politifact, which noted that Trump also tweeted in 2012 about dead voters who allowed Obama to win.

The Swedish attack that wasn’t one: Trump’s strategy of running with fake news didn’t stop when he won the election — and wasn’t limited to Russian media properties: He also used Fox News reporting from the same manner. In February, Trump appeared to suggest at a rally in Florida that a terrorist attack had taken place the night before in Sweden. Sweden itself had no idea what he meant and the Swedish embassy asked for clarification. Twitter users, including many Swedes, ridiculed Trump’s statement, with references ranging from IKEA to the Swedish chef’s character from “The Muppets.” Trump later said he was referring to a Fox News article about violence allegedly perpetrated by refugees. That report, broadcast the day before Trump’s rally, did not mention a specific terrorism-related attack; it focused on reports that rape and gun violence had increased since Sweden began taking in record numbers of refugees in 2015.

Wiretapping allegations pushed by a Fox News personality: In March, even though Trump’s claim that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower had been directly refuted by senior U.S. intelligence officials, the president seized on a baseless claim by the Fox analyst News Andrew Napolitano that British spies wiretapped Trump at the request of former President Obama. Fox News later disavowed Napolitano’s statement. Trump has continued to reiterate his belief that he was wiretapped, even though U.S. and British intelligence officials insist those claims are unfounded.

The murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich: Trump allies recently spread another story online that began as a conspiracy theory and was fueled by Russian media. Fox’s Sean Hannity aired several segments focusing on the unsubstantiated claim that Rich was behind the Clinton campaign email leaks and then murdered for his actions, even though police said he probably had was killed during an attempted robbery. When these claims were completely debunked, Fox removed the story from its website — but not before it was broadcast by Trump ally and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Even after Fox pulled the story, Gingrich told the Washington Post, “I think it’s worth looking into.” »

In his Senate testimony, Watts emphasized that Trump was vulnerable to further manipulation by the Russians: He warned that Russia-linked Twitter accounts were actively trying to engage the president by sending him conspiracy theories. “Until we have a solid foundation of fact and fiction in our own country, and we come to agreement on the facts,” Watts said, “we are going to have a big problem.”

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