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The Russian Disinformation Attack and the Disappearing Rabbit Trick

What does Russia's disinformation attack on the U.S mean for our nation's future? Teri Kanefield examines the connections between the GOP & Putin's Russia, the strategies employed by the Internet Research Agency to spread societal division, and how successful hacking attempts by the GRU may continue to influence our elections.
Published:March 7, 2024
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*Published with the generous permission of Teri Kanefield. Read all of her writing here.

By Teri Kanefield

The more I think about it,” Heather Cox Richardson said this week, “the more it seems the main story of the past decade has been Russian disinformation to undermine U.S. democracy.” This was a notable comment because Richardson follows all the major political stories from the perspective of a political historian, and she has been doing so for years.

I think we should talk about the story and why we are not talking about it more.

Last week, I wrote about the ideological and political connection between the Republicans and Putin’s Russia. If you missed it, start there because seeing the ideological connection between the Republicans and the Russians provides context for the Russian disinformation attack in 2016 and the response of Trump’s campaign.

2016: Russia Launches a Disinformation Attack on the United States

The following information comes mostly from the Senate Report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 election, the Mueller Report, the indictment of the Internet Research Agency. 

The Internet Research Agency (IRA), based in St. Petersburg, was funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin and the Kremlin. In 2014, the IRA conducted an “information warfare campaign designed to spread disinformation and societal division in the United States” and to sway the outcome of the 2016 election.

Swaying the election was only one part of the IRA’s goal. The other part was to sow division and discord in American politics to undermine the American government. The IRA accomplished this by focusing on “hot button societal divisions” such as race, immigration, and Second Amendment rights.

In 2014 and 2016, to prepare for its disinformation operation, the IRA sent two highly ranked female employees, Anna Bogacheva and Aleksandra Krylova, to the U.S. They traveled widely on an intelligence gathering mission to understand the divisions and fractures in American culture.

This is important: The Russians do not try to create fractures and divisions. They look for them and find ways to amplify them and to drive deeper wedges between Americans.

The IRA disinformation campaign against the U.S. was operated from the “Translation Department” where hundreds of “specialists,” operated social media accounts, pretending to be American political activists. They created Facebook accounts and formed groups. Each “specialists” operated dozens of accounts.

The Army of Jesus Facebook page, for example, created and operated by specialists in the IRA, attracted 216,000 American followers.
The Army of Jesus purported to be devoted to Christian themes and Bible passages. To cultivate an audience, the operators provided content consistent with its profile, like these examples:

  • “There has never been a day when people did not need to walk with Jesus.” (Oct. 26, 2016)
  • “I’ve got Jesus in my soul. It’s the only way I know. Watching every move I make, guiding every step I take!” Oct. 29, 2016:
  •  “Rise and shine-realize His blessing!” (Oct. 31, 2016:
  •  “Jesus will always be by your side. Just reach out to Him and you’ll see!” (Oct. 31, 2016)


After building trust, they deploy “payload content,” like this:

  •  “Hillary approves removal of God from the pledge of allegiance.” (Nov. 1, 2016)


Soon afterward, they resumed their confidence-building content, like this:

  • “Never hold on anything [sic] tighter than you holding unto God!” (Nov. 1, 2016)


Side comment: One Twitter account during the Trump presidency, built a lot of trust among Democrats by constantly attacking Trump. The person attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. Then, in 2020, the person flipped and began attacking Democrats with the same venom (and with a large reach).

From the Senate Report: “No single group of Americans was targeted by the IRA more than African Americans.” One of the IRA’s Facebook pages, “Blacktivist” generated 11.2 million engagements. Specialists posing as African American activists posted messages like these:

  • I won’t vote for Hillary Clinton
  • I won’t vote at all
  • Why should we vote?
  • Our votes don’t matter
  • A vote for Jill Stein is not a wasted vote.


Americans believed they were listening to and interacting with the opinions of other Americans.

As an example of how Russians created real world fights (or, to use the language from the reports, how the Russians “coopted unwitting Americans to engage in offline activities in furtherance of their objectives”) the IRA operated a page called “Heart of Texas,” an anti-Muslim page, that attracted 250,000 followers. Heart of Texas scheduled a “Stop the Islamization of Texas” rally for noon on May 21, 2016, in front of the Islamic Da-wah Center in Houston. They encouraged their readers to bring their guns.

The IRA also operated a Facebook page called “My United Muslim of America” which had 325,000 followers. “My United Muslim of America scheduled a pro-Muslim rights rally for the same day at the same time in the same place.

On May 21, 2016, about 50 people showed up, 40 to support Muslims and 10 who were anti-Muslim. Thus Russians acting covertly brought Americans face to face and set them up for fights. It is impossible to know how often this happened.

The IRA’s activity on social media increased after Election Day in 2016. Remember, influencing the election was only part of the plan. The other part was increasing polarization and turning Americans against each other and against their government.

(My guess is that each year, the Russian trolls get better at impersonating Americans. Meanwhile, American social media users, after being exposed to years of rage, start acting more like Russian trolls. All of this makes it harder to distinguish foreign trolls from fellow Americans who are trapped in a misinformation-outrage-cycle.)

In this series I explained how (and why) TV lawyers and legal commentators often reflect back the mood of the room. Since 2016 the “room” has been filled with trouble-making Russian trolls. See the problem? The troll farms change the tone of the room, amplifying division and anger, which is then reflected back by TV commenters with a large reach. Ordinary Americans thus find themselves increasingly enraged.

People who are perpetually fearful do not think well. Psychologists explain what happens to the human brain when constantly stimulated by rage and fear. See, for example, this study. 

2016: Attacks on computers (and attempted attacks on voting systems)

The hacking part of the 2016 Russian attack was carried out by the GRU (General Staff of the Russian Army).

March of 2016: The GRU hacked the email accounts of Clinton campaign volunteers and employees, including campaign chairman John Podesta and stole hoards of documents.

April 2016: The GRU successfully hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee and stole hundreds of thousands of documents.

June 2016: The GRU began disseminating the stolen materials through a social media account belonging to a fictitious person (but operated by the GRU).

The operation was successful: Major newspapers published the stolen material during the 6 months leading up to the election. The headlines looked like this one from the Washington Post: 

Here are the latest, most damaging things in the DNC’s leaked emailsHere are the latest, most damaging things in the DNC’s leaked emails

Because major American newspapers were eager to jump into the fray and publish the stolen materials, Democratic voters were reading stolen documents. The emails particularly enraged Bernie Sanders supporters because the stolen material suggested that members of the Democratic Party preferred Clinton to Sanders. Really, nobody should have been reading stolen documents published out of context, particularly when the hacking targeted only one side.

In other words, the hacking operation was hugely successful. Democrats turned against Democrats. The GRU attempt to breach voting systems, however, failed.

“Concealed Wars”

(The information in this section is from my most recent book, A Firehose of Falsehood.)

The idea of a concealed war can be traced back to The Arthashastra, written in Sankrit during the Mauryan Empire. The concept is described like this: There are two kinds of wars, open wars and concealed wars. An open war is when two armies meet on the battlefield.
Lines are drawn. Everybody knows there is a war.

A concealed war is what today we might call a disinformation campaign. The goal of a concealed war is to turn the people of the enemy country against their leaders, ideally so they attack and even assassinate their own leaders or crumble their own government. Among the advice given for how to conduct a concealed war is to plant spies to start rumors and demoralize the enemy.

In other words, this is an ancient tactic. Americans in 2016 were unprepared and vulnerable. When the Russians tried the same thing on Ukrainians, the Ukrainians, who knew their neighbors well, were much savvier.

Concealed wars are more efficient, and less risky, than open wars. With a concealed war, one country can vanquish the enemy and never suffer a single casualty or have to manufacture a single weapon. Even if the concealed attack is detected, a concealed attack will not invite the same level of rage, anger, and retaliation as, say, the attack of 9-11.

In fact, if media manipulators are savvy enough, the entire attack can soon be forgotten.

Mueller’s Investigation

Mueller was appointed in May, 2017 after American intelligence agencies uncovered evidence of the Russian disinformation and cyber-attack and after contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians were publicly known. Mueller was given the task of investigating:

  1. any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and
  2. any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation; and
  3. any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a)


This instruction was also included in the appointment documents:

If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.

As a result of the Mueller investigation, 34 individuals and 3 companies were indicted. These dribbled out over the course of the investigation and included members of Trump’s campaign and inner circle, including:

  • Paul Manafort: Indicted for financial crimes related mostly to his lobbying efforts in Ukraine. Among other things, he failed to register as a foreign agent.
  • Rick Gates: Financial crimes, failing to register as a foreign agent.
  • Michael Flynn: False statements to investigators.
  • Roger Stone: Lying to congress and witness tampering.


The slow dribble of indictments created a great deal of suspense: Who would be indicted? Would Trump be indicted?

When the Mueller Report was finally published, it laid out the contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians, which were, as follows:

2015: Michael Cohen communicated with Russians about a potential real estate project, Trump Tower Moscow. Trump signed a letter of intent for the tower and in 2016, Cohen emailed and spoke about the project with Russian government secretary Dmitry Peskov.

Spring 2016: Campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos had contact with Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor with Russian connections who traveled to Moscow in April 2016. When returning, Mifsfud told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. A week later, Papadopoulos suggested to the representative of a foreign government that the Russians would help the campaign by releasing emails.

April 2016: Papadopolous tried to arrange a meeting between Misfud, two Russian nationals, and the Trump campaign but no meeting ever took place.

June 9, 2016: A Russian lawyer met with Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, who anticipated receiving documents that would incriminate Clinton, but the Russians provided no such information. Days after that meeting, the DNC announced that the Russian government had infiltrated their computers.

July 2016: Campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page traveled in his personal capacity to Moscow and gave a keynote address. (Page lived and worked in Russia between 2003 and 2007.)

Page’s trip to Moscow drew media attention. The Trump campaign then distanced itself from Page and in late September, 2016, and removed him from the campaign.

August 2: Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met in New York city with his long-time business associate Konstantin Kilimnik who the FBI believes had ties to Russian intelligence. Kilimnik asked for the meeting to deliver a “peace plan” for Ukraine. Manafort later acknowledged to investigators that this plan was a way for Russia to gain control of eastern Ukraine. Manafort also talked to him about the campaign’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in Midwestern states, and shared polling data with Kilimnik.

Fall 2016: Within hours of the Hollywood Access tape surfacing, Wikileaks released thousands of John Podesta’s stolen emails as a distraction.

After the election:  the Russian government tried to “make inroads” into the new administration.

Here was how the Mueller report characterized the Trump campaign’s relationship to the Russians:

The Trump campaign “showed interest” in the leaks and “welcomed their potential damage to candidate Clinton.”

The special counsel concluded that the “Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome” and the Trump Campaign “expected it would benefit” from Russian efforts, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Mueller was looking for criminal activity. The crime here would be conspiracy. To prove a conspiracy, you have to prove each of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. Two or more people agreed to commit a crime
  2. All conspirators had the specific intent to commit the crime
  3. At least one of the conspirators committed an overt act


Conspiracy exists when two or more persons join together and form an agreement to violate the law, and then act on that agreement.
If you go back and read the timeline carefully, you’ll see that there was not enough evidence to prove each element of a criminal conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt. There is evidence that the Trump campaign was ideologically aligned with Russia, and that they welcomed Russian help, and they were happy to benefit from Russian crimes–but they did not conspire with the Russians to commit those crimes.

“Collusion”

Early in the investigation, Trump (and others) made the story all about Trump: Would he be indicted? Would he be exonerated?
Trump framed the question around the word “collusion” which was masterful. On May 11, 2017, in an interview with Lester Holt, Trump said there was “no collusion between me and my campaign and the Russians.

His mantra became: “NO COLLUSION!”

Trump knew exactly what his campaign had done. He knew when they got information, what information they received, and he knew, for example, that they declined meetings and cut off Carter Page.

He knew that what he had actually done (benefit from Russian crimes instead of calling the FBI) would draw negative criticism.
He knew that. His lawyers are not that stupid. So he cleverly framed the issue as: Did Trump collude with the Russians?

When Trump framed the question as “was there collusion?” his opponents then got into the act by answering “Yes there was collusion!” and then sifting through newspaper reporting to find evidence that there was contact between the Trump campaign and the Russians.

Oh, the Suspense!

For two years, Trump and right-wing media outlets shouted, “No Collusion! It’s a witch hunt! It’s all a hoax.”

Mainstream media, left-leaning media like MSNBC, and influential left-wing social media commentators shouted, “Yes there WAS collusion!” Big name legal commentators assured the public that a sitting president can be indicted despite the OLC memo saying that a sitting president could not be indicted (the OLC reasoning is that a president should first be removed from office, and then indicted on the grounds that an indictment would interfere with his constitutionally mandated duties.) Much time was spent in left wing media circles about whether Mueller could (or should) disregard the OLC memo and indict Trump.

Left-wing news consumers eagerly awaited Trump being indicted, tried, and hauled off to jail. (If you spent time on Twitter in between 2017 and 2019, you know what I’m talking about.)

The right-wing news consumers anticipated the pleasure of Trump being cleared of the false charge of “collusion.”

The story was all about Trump. Trump was the star. The Russian attack faded into the background.

Mueller Publishes His Report

Mainstream headlines blared: “No Collusion!” like this one from The Washington Post:

‘No Collusion’ After All?

Trump immediately Tweeted, “Game over!”

Trump supporters were jubilant. Trump critics were enraged.

The Disappearing Rabbit Trick

When Trump made himself the central character of the story, the story stopped being about the Russian attack on our democracy.
Remember, election interference was only part of the plan. The other part was to sow discord and cause people to give up on democracy.

Notice the reciprocity: The Russians helped Trump get elected. Trump then helped the Russians by changing the subject and getting everyone speculating about whether Mueller would find “collusion.”

The Russian cyber attack was forgotten by Trump’s critics, who were enraged (and remain enraged) that Mueller did not criminally indict Trump. In fact, in some left-wing circles, if you mention Mueller you will find they are still seething with anger. (If you respond to this blog post with anger about the fact that Mueller didn’t indict Trump, you’re both proving my point and missing my point.)

The Russian cyber attack was eagerly forgotten by Trump’s supporters, many of whom are ideologically aligned with Russia and have no wish to make Putin look bad.

Trump framed the narrative as “no collusion!” because he knew the ending. Thus, the subject of Russia’s cyber and disinformation attack on the United States disappeared like a rabbit into a magician’s hat. The public got played by the masters of media manipulation.

What We Should Have Been talking About

We should have been talking about how Russian disinformation campaigns work. This is from the Senate Committee Report:

Social media has created new virtual venues for American participation in the national political discourse, and offered a new channel for direct democratic engagement with elected officials, media representatives, and fellow citizens around the world.

However, the same system of attributes that empowers these tools and their users to positively increase civic engagement and constructive dialogue lends itself to exploitation, which frequently materializes as the dissemination of intentionally false, misleading, and deliberately polarizing content

We should be preparing for the next cyber attack, which will come, and which will be more sophisticated as the Russians get better at impersonating Americans, driving divisions, and stoking anger.

We are the consumers of news and in this click-driven media environment, news outlets often dish up what the consumers want. They need to attract and retain viewers and audiences. Consumer demands help steer the national narrative.

People need to stop taking the bait.

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