(I wrote this in 2018.)
Last year, we learned that during the 2016 election campaign, millions of Americans were exposed to social media posts sponsored by Russians operating out of the “Internet Research Agency.” The Russians pushed hot buttons in domestic politics from gun rights to gay rights to “blacktivism” and anger at police abuses. The campaign was designed to foam up division on both ends of our political spectrum. The Russians were so sloppy in covering their tracks, sometimes they paid for their ads in rubles.
Recent indictments of Russian individuals have revealed exactly how the Russian government also hacked into domestic political outfits such as the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. The ties between “DC Leaks” and “Guccifer 2.0” and Russia’s state and Wikileaks are laid out in black and white and, I hope, will soon be proved in court. It is already the assessment of all U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russians interfered in our elections. As President Trump’s current lawyer said on Twitter, “The Russians are nailed.” (Julian Assange appears on the verge of finally being thrown out of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, as well.)
Today’s news development is that Facebook announced it had uncovered evidence of a new and ongoing false influence campaign, aimed at promoting both the “Unite the Right” and “Abolish ICE” movements–two fringe elements, one on each side of our political spectrum. Facebook says it doesn’t know who was behind these, but it’s straight out of the 2016 Russia propaganda playbook, and some of the fake accounts followed Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” (propaganda) accounts. So it’s not a stretch at all to believe this is the Russian state’s work again.
One entity which does not hide from its ties to the Russian state is RT: Russia Today television. After years of insisting it was editorially independent, Russia Today was forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, and it finally admitted it serves the Moscow regime within the United States.
RT’s longtime editor-in-chief is Margarita Simonyan. In 2012, she openly admitted the purpose of RT is to provide an outlet for the Russian state’s views:
It is important to have a channel that people get used to, and then, when needed, you show them what you need to show. In some sense, not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a ministry of defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.
Just as the Internet Research Agency’s propaganda campaigns were focused on American social ills, RT also frequently runs stories on our domestic problems, such as racism, drug abuse, police abuses, education woes, budget problems, government dysfunction, and so on. The problems are real, but the coverage is wall-to-wall. If there is a scab in the U.S. body politic, RT is frequently moved to pick at it. This is entirely in line with Russia’s strategy of sowing discord here in our country as well as in other nations abroad. For example, RT gives a whole show to the divisive Alex Salmond, who was behind the Scottish National Party’s losing 2014 campaign that would have torn the U.K. in half by taking Scotland out of it.
RT also, of course, uses its domestic platform in the U.S. to advance a Russian slant on events. In its version of today’s Facebook story, RT highlights that Facebook did not accuse Russia specifically. RT also covered the farcical “re-election campaign” of Putin in complete earnestness. And it runs the mirror image of the scab-picking stories whenever it talks about Russia. “Most Russians approve of Putin,” RT notes today. This straightforward coverage of Putin as a democrat or ordinary candidate is designed to make him something other than what he is: a murderous autocrat who’s ordered the deaths of multiple journalists within his borders.
Let there be no doubt: RT is not just built to tell news tales. It’s meant to change the very values of other societies. Here is a screen capture from a speech Simonyan made in China last year:
Yes: media like hers “changes the entire value system of societies,” and that’s RT’s explicit aim when it comes to the U.S. Here she is with another chilling passage:
(Whenever Russian figures complain of “international terrorism,” they are usually cynically referring to acts committed in opposition to Russian positions. So, freedom fighters in Syria opposing ISIS and opposing the murderous Assad regime become “international terrorists.” Orwell knew the power of the word.) But here she is offering to work with Chinese media to oppose “media terrorism,” which she basically defines as free western media that expose Russian crimes.
China’s media are no freer than Russia’s. And that tableau, of Simonyan, President Xi, and President Putin, on the same dais and singing in harmony terrifies me. It should make crystal clear that Putin sees RT as his long claw into the U.S. marketplace of ideas, and it was an invitation by Putin to Xi to join him in spreading their anti-American views on a global scale.
Neither nation is our friend. Russia–Putin–has ordered the poisoning of multiple people on British soil; it has interfered in our election and the elections of other nations; it has pushed to shatter the European Union and raged against NATO; it has threatened and intimidated our smaller allies in Europe who need us, such as when it hacked Estonia and threatened Montenegro for joining NATO; it has invaded the Ukraine and annexed Crimea by force and then through a sham “referendum”; it has lied about its involvement in the shooting down of a passenger plane, MH17, with a Russian-made missile; it has hacked into our power grid and tested the ability to shut it down; and God knows what it has on Trump. China has its own litany of sins that include bullying its smaller neighbors, the construction of illegal islands in the South China Sea, aggression against Japan, coddling of North Korea, and a creepy system of domestic repression of its own people up to and including mass executions.
Our country is divided and that is getting worse. So at the least, Americans must learn to see the links back to Russia, and see foreign meddling for what it is. We no longer can assume that we can have an honest political debate here without a hidden foreign voice trying to shout it down. Russia’s offensive campaigns have been designed to aggravate the rawest nerves in politics, so to spread fear, dissent, and make us weak through chaos. We must not forget that Russia’s tentacles extend deep.
But united we stand, divided we fall.