I was a magazine guy.
After eight years as managing editor of Time, I left at the end of 2013 to become under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. It’s a fancy title, but that job is one of the few in Washington that’s tailored for someone with a media background like me. After I was nominated, some of my colleagues joked that I was now “head of U.S. propaganda,” but I thought of myself instead as the chief marketing officer of brand America. I figured I’d be spending a lot of my time combating America’s negative image in the Muslim world—and I did—but then the Russian annexation of Crimea happened in early 2014. What I saw Russia do online and in social media around this grave violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty was a revelation to me—and nothing short of a trial run for what they did to manipulate our presidential election in 2016. Few Americans realized it back then, but we were already in a global information war with Russia.
But some did know.
On a Saturday morning after I’d been in the job for two months—about four weeks after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Crimea—I got a call from the State Department operations center saying they had the secretary on the line. Only it wasn’t Secretary John Kerry, my boss, but former Secretary Hillary Clinton. I had known, liked and admired Clinton for a long time, and I assumed she was calling belatedly to say congratulations. I was wrong. After a perfunctory hello, she launched right into it: We’re losing the information war with Russia. She urged me to stand up a much stronger and more robust messaging machine to compete with the firehose of Russian propaganda and disinformation that was besmirching America’s image and undermining democracy around the world. “They’re using the old techniques of repeating lies over and over but doing so on 21st century platforms,” she said. You need to fact-check what they are saying and expose Russian disinformation in real time, she continued. We need to do much more. I remember how she ended the call: “The State Department is still issuing press releases while Putin is rewriting history.”
She was right.
But it was still new to me. Even though I had been in media all my life, it wasn’t until after Crimea that I saw the power and effectiveness of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the information war, as one U.S. three-star told me, “The Russians have the big battalions.”
It all began with reports of “little green men” — at least that’s how TV news described the masked men in unmarked uniforms who skulked into Crimea in March 2014.
In fact, they were “Spetsnaz,” Russian special operations forces. At the time, Putin vehemently denied they were Russian troops. He claimed they were patriotic local militias defending the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
This, of course, was an unblinking lie. Within days, Putin had illegally annexed a piece of Ukraine into the Russian federation and copped to the fact that they were indeed Russian soldiers. The White House condemned the violation of Crimea’s sovereignty and began the process of imposing sanctions on Russia. At the time, I thought that at the very least we should marshal social media against this historic trespass. Some folks made fun of what they called #hashtag diplomacy, but heck, it was something. I started tweeting against Putin and Russia’s actions and urged everyone in the State Department with a social media account to do the same—"The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of #Ukraine determine their own future."
Not exactly fire-breathing words. At the same time, we started a small social media group called the Ukraine Task Force to rebut Russian lies in real time. And then a funny thing happened: I started getting dozens and then hundreds of tweets calling me a fascist propagandist and a hypocrite and much, much worse. And almost all of them had terrible spelling and worse grammar. In addition, there were tweets from scantily clad young women who, in syntactically challenged English mixed with Cyrillic, inquired about my political views and breathlessly told me theirs. I received screeds about Russian babies being kidnapped in Crimea, unrepentant Nazis who were behind the protests in downtown Kiev, and how the CIA had created the AIDS virus.
When I published a diplomatic note on the State Department site accusing Russia of an “intense campaign of disinformation” and referred to Russia Today as “a propaganda bullhorn,” I was attacked on-air by RT and in an editorial by its editor-in-chief accusing me of cramming dozens of falsehoods into a few hundred words. (You can always tell what the Russians are doing because they accuse you of doing the same thing.) I had never watched RT before, and soon discovered that it was an often entertaining mélange of fact and fiction depicting a toxic America riven by corruption and racism featuring experts without expertise spinning wild conspiracy stories. RT stories suggested it was the democratic right of the people of Crimea to be part of Russia and that the U.S. had fomented the color revolutions in Ukraine and the Russian periphery.
I hate to tell you, President Trump, but RT was calling American media fake news long before you did.
All of this was eye-opening and a bit bewildering, and now seems sadly familiar to Americans who saw a similar pattern of information warfare during the 2016 election.
But this is not new for the Russians. The annexation of Crimea, the soft invasion of eastern Ukraine and the social media tsunami around these events are all part of a long-term KGB military strategy known as “active measures”—a bland term for the weaponization of information to achieve strategic goals. The idea goes back to Soviet days, but the modern tools of social media have made it far easier and more effective. After all, you don’t have to pay spies to plant false stories in American newspapers anymore—you can do it yourself from a troll farm in St. Petersburg. In short, “active measures” seeks to create a world of “alternative facts.”
But the goal of “active measures” is even grander than influencing an election: It uses disinformation, propaganda and cyberware to weaken the West, foment division in NATO and undermine America’s image around the world. The social media that accompanied Crimea wasn’t so much to support Russia’s point of view, but to sow doubt about anyone understanding what was happening. Russian digital disinformation is post-modern: It’s less the propagation of lies than the idea that there is no truth. Ultimately, “active measures” seeks to undermine the very concept of empirical facts.
Last week, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Clint Watts, a former FBI officer who is an expert on Russian disinformation, said that what Russia did on social media in 2014 around Ukraine was a “dry run” for the 2016 election. He called it “capabilities development.” And it was. They seeded false stories about a 3-year-old ethnic Russian boy crucified by the Ukrainian military, about how Ukrainian bakeries were refusing to sell bread to Russian speakers, and how the new Ukrainian government was going to cancel the May 9 World War II commemoration and stage a gay pride parade instead. These efforts presaged the internet ecosystem of 2016: Disinformation is launched on Twitter; it is then covered by Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik; those stories are loaded up on YouTube and are then pushed out to sympathetic Facebook communities. At the time, our most senior NATO commander, U.S. Gen. Philip Breedlove, told me this was “an information blitzkrieg unlike anything in the history of information warfare.” In military terms, Russia was preparing the information battlefield for 2016.
The hundreds of Russian ads recently revealed on Facebook and Google are also examples of “active measures.” The ads, ranging from ones that seem to support Black Lives Matter and the Black Panthers to ads saying “The South will rise again” to the headline, “Satan: If I win Clinton Wins!,” fit into the Russian goal of sowing confusion and doubt. The Russians like “frozen conflicts”—a term that applies to territorial disputes like eastern Ukraine or Transnistria in Moldova, but could easily describe the stalemate in Congress, the polarization of American politics, or the debate about Russian “collusion.” It’s these divisions the ads are meant to exploit. Yes, there are plenty that were pro-Trump, but in the early stages of the campaign, the ads were more focused on creating controversy and division than on supporting any one candidate. And that’s the idea—to reveal an America riven by different and irreconcilable points of view, to show modern democracy as a dysfunctional mess. What Russian would want to live in such a society?
While the delivery system for disinformation is very 21st century, the way Russia uses it hearkens back to Soviet WWII artillery strategy: Shoot fast, aim everywhere and don’t stint on the ammunition. The Russians have an army of botnets and sock puppets and honey pots. They use troll factories to create thousands and thousands of tweets, which cleverly mix political news with apolitical posts about fashion and sports. They exploit all the laws of online social science: Multiple sources are more persuasive than a single one; emotionally resonant content is passed on more frequently; and repetition leads to familiarity which leads to acceptance. I was impressed with how quickly the Russian propaganda machine was on top of the news—but, of course, it takes less time to make up a fact than to check one. And they use our own bias for “objectivity” against us: They know American media will dutifully report Russian fictions, however far-fetched, and try to balance them with accurate reporting.
Putin has been the impresario of this information war. In 1991, when the Berlin Wall fell, there was a KGB operative in East Germany who saw that the great Soviet Union, which had spent trillions of rubles on tanks and missiles, had fallen without firing a shot. He realized that American soft power—he has even used the term—had trumped Soviet hard power. When he became president of Russia in 1999, the first thing Putin did was take over the state television network. He had learned the lesson.
When I interviewed Putin in 2006 for Time, he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the unraveling of the Soviet Union. His unstated goal is to put Humpty Dumpty back together again by uniting the Russian diaspora, keeping his neighbors unstable, and undermining the appeal of the U.S. and the idea of democracy itself. Russian investment in media of all kinds—from television stations in the periphery, to reality TV to VKontakte, a sort of Russian Facebook—is a giant loss-leader and is meant to topple what he once called the “Anglo-Saxon monopoly” of media. The autocrat’s strategy is always to have an enemy, and Putin’s enemy is always the U.S.
I wish I could say that we figured out what to do about Russian disinformation and that we had seen what Russia would do in the 2016 election. We didn’t and I didn’t. But the writing was on the screen. The Ukraine Task Force became the Russia Information Group, where we supported credible counter-Russian voices in the region. We pretty much stopped creating content ourselves. After all, the State Department isn’t exactly a media company, and the Russians were crushing us on volume. We had been working with the big tech companies, Facebook, Google, Apple, on countering ISIS’ content online, but they just weren’t as interested or as knowledgeable about Russian disinformation. It wasn’t yet on their radar as a problem in the U.S. But in 2016, with the rise of “fake news,” wild conspiracy stories, botnets and paid ads on social media, we saw the Putin playbook in action here in the U.S.
Before I left the State Department, we had transformed the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications—a small entity created by Secretary Clinton to counter Al Qaeda and then ISIS messaging (she was ahead of that one, too)—into the Global Engagement Center, a larger group whose ultimate goal was to combat disinformation around the world, with a special focus on Russia. Earlier this year, in the Defense Authorization Act, Congress expanded the GEC’s mission to counter state and non-state propaganda aimed at undermining national security and told the Defense Department to transfer up to $80 million to this new entity. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has asked for some but not all of the money from the Pentagon, but it’s hard to imagine this State Department using any of those funds to counter Russian propaganda.
Particularly when the head of the American government seems so often to rely on their talking points.