“The Internet Research Agency exploited divisions in our society by leveraging vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem. They exploited social unrest and human cognitive biases.” But the illustrations accompanying the New Knowledge report seem transposed from a wholly different narrative.
Consider, for example, a meme featuring two photographs: on top, there is a smiling Donald Trump opposite a smiling Mike Pence; on the bottom, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, he with a Satanic five-pointed star in a circle on his forehead and she with buffalo horns growing out of hers. Under Trump and Pence, it reads, “Like for Jesus Team.” The tagline for Clinton and Kaine is “Ignore for Satan Team.” (The New Knowledge report explains that these memes “reinforced in-group camaraderie.”)
Or consider a picture of a distressed young man being comforted by someone who might be Jesus, accompanied by two captions: “ ‘Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.’—Jesus.” and “You can’t hold hands with God when you are masturbating.” (New Knowledge: “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability—usually
Or consider a picture of a distressed young man being comforted by someone who might be Jesus, accompanied by two captions: “ ‘Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.’—Jesus.” and “You can’t hold hands with God when you are masturbating.” (New Knowledge: “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability—usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed—is a timeless espionage practice.”
Or consider an entire collection of memes agitating for “Texit,” the secession of Texas from the United States. (“Tactic: Sow Literal Division” is the chapter heading of this section.)
.. Or consider the memes that promote historical conspiracy theories. “Mozart was Black,” one reads. Another holds that the original Statue of Liberty was modelled after a black woman, but the U.S. rejected this gift and France was forced to send the current Lady Liberty. (“The Black-targeted groups were presented with distinct historical conspiracies—ones intended to reinforce cultural identity as well as create discord.”)
.. Are Russian trolls really this stupid? The answer is: not quite. They can certainly tell the difference between high-quality graphics and what they produced. They can probably tell the difference between a devil and a buffalo. And while the authors of these memes likely have genuine problems with definite and indefinite articles, they didn’t stumble into not one but two puns about masturbation. This is not exactly the sophistication described in the report, but it is a kind of sophistication.
.. Russian propaganda is cacophonous. This is its single most important distinguishing feature, and it is the one that never fails to confound Americans. Americans assume that propaganda serves a clear, actionable objective: campaign propaganda is intended to make you vote a certain way, and war propaganda is intended to make you hate the enemy and support the troops. The same assumptions, Americans think, hold for totalitarian propaganda: it is probably intended to make everyone support the regime. In fact, the purpose of totalitarian propaganda is to take away your ability to perceive reality. To their credit, the writers of the New Knowledge report understand this. The Internet Research Agency’s effort, they state,
was absolutely intended to
- reinforce tribalism, to
- polarize and divide, and to
- normalize points of view strategically advantageous to the Russian government on everything from social issues to political candidates. It was designed to
- exploit societal fractures,
- blur the lines between reality and fiction,
- erode our trust in
- media entities and the information environment, in
- government, in
- each other, and in
- democracy itself.
Totalitarian propaganda is overwhelming and inconsistent. It bombards you with mutually contradictory claims, which often come packaged in doublethink pairs. The Russian dissident singer-songwriter Alexander Galich sang about one such pair:
- “We stand for the cause of peace and we are preparing for war.”
In a talk I gave with the historian Timothy Snyder, he cited more recent examples:
- “There is no such thing as a Ukrainian language” goes with “Ukrainian authorities are forcing everyone to speak Ukrainian.”
.. Russian propaganda is a direct descendant of totalitarian Soviet propaganda. Far from promoting a single guiding ideology, this kind of propaganda robs you of your bearings. The regime gains a monopoly on reality, and can make any claim whatsoever. Hannah Arendt famously described the totalitarian ruler’s ascendance this way: “In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. . . . Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”