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Russia's role in this year's presidential election, explained by a media historian

“We have to be careful not to overstate the nature of the conflict here.”

Putin and Trump (Suzanne Cordeiro/AFP/Getty Images and Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

The Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election became apparent during the Democratic National Convention this summer. WikiLeaks, which now operates as a de facto Russian front, released a trove of stolen emails from the server of the Democratic National Committee. The leak served two purposes: to raise doubts about the legitimacy of Clinton’s nomination and to give a subtle boost to her Republican rival, Donald Trump.

We’ve since learned, thanks in part to this report by BuzzFeed, that senior members of Clinton’s campaign staff had their email accounts hacked by a group known as Fancy Bear (among many other names). The internal dynamics of the group aren’t well understood. What we know is that the White House and various American intelligence agencies believe strongly that Fancy Bear is working at the behest of the Russian government.

In addition to penetrating email accounts, Russia is also involved in the more insidious business of propagating “fake news” stories in order to sow doubt and distort public opinion. Much of the fake news problems it the result of ideologues and internet entrepreneurs, but there is compelling evidence that suggests Russia is an active participant in this stream of misinformation.

As CNN reported last week, Russian hackers (an unknown number of which were state-sponsored) have worked to disrupt America’s electoral process via botnets and a network of websites and social media accounts, all of which exist in order to pump false or inflammatory narratives into the media ecosystem.

Often the stories are conspiratorial in nature or intended to add to the white noise floating around the web. While much of the “fake news” seems to have targeted Hillary Clinton (i.e., the recklessly speculative stories about her declining health), the more subversive result was to produce a more polarized electorate.

The goal, as Clint Watts, a fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, told CNN, “is to erode trust in mainstream media, public figures, government institutions — everything that holds the unity of the Republic together."

This kind of subterfuge isn’t new. Nearly every major power engages in some form of cyberwarfare. Putin’s encroachments, however, represent an unusually direct attempt to influence the internal politics of other countries’ elections.

Indeed, the Obama administration publicly condemned Russia in October for attempting to interfere in our electoral process. Vice President Joe Biden went a step further, acknowledging Russia’s role and overtly warning that “we have the capacity” to respond at a “time of our choosing.”

To better understand Russia’s ambitions, I spoke with Vasily Gatov, a Russian-born mass media analyst and a Visiting Fellow at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism.

A specialist in Russian media history, Gatov is currently working on a book about the re-emergence of totalitarian censorship in Putin’s Russia. He has reported extensively in Russia for more than two decades and, more recently, has focused on the political and technological implications of mass media.

His perspective on Russia’s propaganda campaign is more measured than most. While he doesn’t deny Russia’s involvement or subversive intent, he believes their impact has been wildly overstated. Russia benefits from the surplus of fake news, Gatov concedes, but often they don’t create it so much as amplify it. By inflating Russia’s role, he told me, we “create the impression that they’re more powerful than they are.”

Sean Illing

Let me ask the most obvious question first: Did Russia hack our election?

Vasily Gatov

I cannot support that claim entirely, but I would say that it's the first time in a long time that Russia has become such a big issue in an American election. There's no doubt Russia has become the focus of aggressive camps on both sides of the political aisle, though for different reasons.

The technical capacity of Russian hackers to break into email servers doesn't require state assistance, although that certainly helps. It could be that the hacks — or at least some of the hacks — were executed by civilians with their own interests.

And if the question is if Russia benefited from this election, I'm not so sure about that either. So I would say that even if adversarial activities were being performed on the digital front from the Russian side, there's no reason to believe it determined the results one way or the other.

Sean Illing

To be clear, by “hack” I don’t mean tampering with voting machines or rigging the process. I’m referring to the more insidious business of distorting discourse and influencing public opinion.

There’s absolutely no doubt that Russia has intervened in this way, right?

Vasily Gatov

Oh without question. But this kind of thing is quite normal in this strange new world of post-truth and post-fact. I think that states generally should try to avoid direct influence over electoral process of each other. This is essential to the concept of sovereignty.

On the other hand, in the modern world, especially after World War II, nearly every nation has explored new ways of employing soft power, and that's basically what these cyber capabilities are. The United States has used soft power to influence elections many times in recent history, and this is not something that's disputed.

What Russia has decided is that it's allowed to do this everywhere, and that's exactly what they're doing.

Putin MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty

Sean Illing

Is there any way to adequately measure the impact of Russia’s propaganda campaign in this election?

Vasily Gatov

Not really. I suspect the quantitative effect of Russian activity is very small, but there are a lot of reasons to speak about it. The American press, in many ways, has been manipulated by both conservatives and liberals as it relates to the Russian agenda. And this is precisely one of the goals of Russian strategy, to create confusion on all sides.

Sean Illing

It seems rather obvious to me that Putin preferred a Trump victory in this election. Do you doubt that?

Vasily Gatov

I don't think so. I live in the US now but I have many senior contacts in Russia who dispute this. I think Putin was sincere when he said several months ago that for Russia there really isn't a preference in the American election.

Putin is not a strategist; he's a reactive and opportunistic tactician. For him and for many people in Russian government, Trump is unpredictable; they don't know what he'll do. He's a black box. For diplomats, a black box is much worse than a known evil.

In my view, the apparent support of Trump from Russia is nothing more than trolling. They want to distort the process rather than achieve a particular result.

Sean Illing

I have to push back here. We can debate the efficacy or degree of Russian penetration, but I don't think there's any doubt that Russia was actively undermining Hillary Clinton. There were, for example, no RNC leaks published, no attempts to subvert the process on that side. Instead, nearly every leak and lie seemed to injure Clinton more than anyone else.

And of course much of the coverage on RT, the news network run by the Russian government, while it wasn’t always pro-Trump, it was almost always anti-Clinton. This was apparent during the primaries as well, in which Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders often received fawning coverage.

Vasily Gatov

I take your point, but there are other explanations, especially as it relates to RT. There are very few Russians who serve as executives there. RT employs young disenfranchised journalists (including American and British citizens), who are generally of the radical left or radical right.

So imagine their natural attitude toward this election. On both sides, there was a deep antagonism against Clinton because she's considered establishment and centrist. And Clinton, moreover, has been constantly criticized by domestic Russian media.

So I would rather say that RT — and perhaps many Russians — were more against Clinton (and the establishment) than they were for Trump. To the extent that that's true, there was a natural alignment of interests between these journalists and the Russian government.

Sean Illing

My sense is that, if nothing else, Russia supported Trump because he represents a vague rejection of American democracy. His entire campaign was rooted in a denial of the Washington establishment, and so his victory is itself a sign that people no longer trust their own government.

Vasily Gatov

You're right about that. This is certainly one of the conclusions you can draw from this election.

Sean Illing

Perhaps “strategic” is too generous a word, but Russia’s broader foreign policy objective is spelled out pretty clearly in its official military doctrine, which identifies as a key goal the desire to exploit “the protest potential of the population” in foreign states. So creating discord and discrediting democracy is undoubtedly part of a long-term plan.

Vasily Gatov

I don't disagree with that, but, again, this is not a systematic plotting against other countries in the conventional sense — it doesn't involve planting agents and saboteurs in order to instigate instability. These are much more careful acts that are performed from the outside, and in no way compare to Soviet or Cold War tactics.

Sean Illing

I think you’re defining “plotting” too narrowly there, but there is certainly a difference in terms of degree.

Vasily Gatov

It’s worth remembering that one of the goals of Russian foreign policy is to strengthen and expand the presence of Russian mass media tools that deliver the opinion of Russia to the world, and this is how Russian propaganda is conceived by many within the government.

Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
John Sommers II/Getty Images

Sean Illing

What Russia does best is blur the lines. By tactically spreading misinformation, they relativize everything. Eventually, nobody really believes anything and all you’re left with is doubt and cynicism.

Vasily Gatov

Yes, but, as you know, this kind of thing is not a Russian invention. One of the first inventors of these mechanisms was William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper tycoon. And of course many modern modes and techniques of subversive propaganda were developed and perfected by British and American authorities in the previous century.

The only strategic difference between the 20th century and what we're seeing today is the digital component, but the tactics and goals are hardly new and are practiced by virtually every major power.

Sean Illing

From Russia’s perspective, the very fact that this is an issue for us, that there are stories popping up about Russia’s influence, and that American media is forced to question the legitimacy of our process is itself a victory for them.

Vasily Gatov

Absolutely. This is what I've been arguing since the election. Russia undoubtedly celebrated the reports in American media about its activities. They want to instill doubt. They want to be part of the agenda. They want to penetrate our media culture.

Russian penetration is dramatically overstated in American media, but that only serves them better. It creates the impression that they're more powerful than they are. That discussions like this are necessary at all is a tremendous win for Russia.

Sean Illing

Is there any way for a state to defend against these kind of cyber encroachments, given the structure of social media and the internet?

Vasily Gatov

I'm not sure. I'm inclined to believe this is more a problem for Facebook and Twitter to solve than it is for states. Fake news and misinformation spreads as a result of social media algorithms, and I think that's more significant than the subversive activity of states. What we're seeing now would not be possible without social media networks.

Whether it's Donald Trump or Breitbart.com or the Russian government, the ability to pollute discourse and reinforce narratives is readily available, and that's the larger problem.

Sean Illing

I tend to think Russia’s role in this election was greater than you suggest, but we at least agree that there was a propaganda campaign, however small or ineffective.

Should the United States interpret this as an act of ideological war? Is this a digital reboot of the Cold War?

Vasily Gatov

No, and I think it's important that we not treat this as war, or even as a new Cold War. The Soviet Union, unlike modern Russia, had global goals, and in order to achieve those goals it had to actively spread an ideology that presumed the defeat of capitalism and, ultimately, the United States.

Russian ideology today is nonexistent. This is not ideology. The goal of current Russian politics is to be left alone. They don't want other states meddling in what they consider regional or domestic affairs.

On top of that, Russia wants to receive more respect as a global power, which means more respect for its interests beyond its national border. This is quite different from the Cold War. Russia doesn't want to destroy the United States as the Soviets did.

So we have to be careful not to overstate the nature of the conflict here.