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Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet

I was asked by an editor at RBC, one of Russia’s best respected independent news organizations, to offer my thoughts on the Russian/US infowar. It was a great chance to think about Adrian Chen’s provocative tale about Russia’s Internet Research Agency (a topic that Global Voices RuNet Echo has done a terrific job of covering) and broader questions about skepticism, mistrust and who benefits from doubt. The piece ran on RBC today in Russian, but my English language text follows below.

In early June, the New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story by investigative reporter Adrian Chen about a Russian “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, linked to Evgeny Prigozhin, reported to have close ties with Vladimir Putin. In the article, Chen interviewed Lyudmila Savchuk, a whistle blower who is suing the Internet Research Agency, her former employer, in hopes of shutting down their operations of posting pro-Kremlin comments on social media sites in English and Russian.

Until Chen’s story, many American readers had never heard of paid Russian propagandists writing online. But followers of the RuNet, Russia’s online spaces, have seen the Russian internet as one of the world’s most fiercely contested online spaces. In 2011, internet researchers in the US and Canada published a book, “Access Contested”, which suggested that battles over online spaces were progressing from censorship – preventing the posting of controversial content or preventing a nation’s citizens from reading that content – to a more complex model of contestation, where governments used a wide range of methods to disrupt dialog online: harassing users with frivolous lawsuits, rendering sites unavailable via denial of service attacks, and flooding comment threads. While these tactics have become popular worldwide, anywhere governments wish to disrupt online speech, many of them were pioneered in Russian cyberspace. My coauthors and I documented some of these early attacks, including attacks on Novaya Gazeta, in a 2010 study published by the Berkman Center at Harvard University.

What was surprising about Chen’s story was not that people were producing pro-government comments in Russian, but that this same Internet Research Agency appeared to be responsible for a set of fabricated news stories, released in English and intended to mislead US audiences. These stories have fascinated and baffled American media scholars. They are complex hoaxes, involving dozens of social media accounts, fake websites and fake YouTube videos, all towards the apparent goal of making American social media users believe that a chemical plant in Louisiana had been attacked by ISIS terrorists, or that there had been an outbreak of Ebola in Atlanta. These hoaxes were not successful in fooling many people for very long – they were quickly dismissed after mainstream news reports made clear that these tragedies had not occurred.

These hoaxes suggest an interesting new chapter in the ongoing infowar between the US and Russia. The goal of the infowar may no longer be to promote or discredit either the Kremlin or the White House. The goal may be to destroy trust in the internet, in social media and in news.

For decades, nations have worked to produce news that reflects their specific point of view. The United States Broadcasting Board of Governors oversees Voice of America, Radio and TV Marti (for Cuban audiences), Al-Hurra TV and Radio Sawa (for Arabic-speaking audiences), Radio Free Asia, and Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe, which includes Radio Svoboda, aimed at Russian audiences. Defenders of these projects see them as providing objective news reporting in countries where press freedom is constrained. Others – including some US legislators – see these stations as pro-US propaganda. Until 2013, Voice of America was banned from broadcasting in the US because Congress believed that these broadcasts, played in the US, would function as pro-government propaganda. In recent years, BBG has broadened its remit beyond broadcasting, and proposed spending $12.5 million in 2016 to support internet anti-censorship technologies, intended to allow citizens of countries that censor the internet to access blocked content.

It should not have been a surprise that Russia would take to international broadcasting to promote a national agenda, joining stated sponsored channels France24 (France), CCTV (China), and Al Jazeera (Qatar). These channels have experimented with different mixes of news reporting and public diplomacy, sometimes coming under fire for compromising journalistic standards in favor of national interests.

Russia Today (RT) has taken some unusual and surprising approaches in deploying this tool of soft power. The network promotes a view of Russia as defender of the principle of international sovereignty in the face of relentless US-led globalization, a viewpoint that turns not only protests in Armenia into a US-led grab for power, but the arrest of FIFA officials for corruption into a plot to strip Russia of the 2018 World Cup. While Al Jazeera, in particular, has worked hard to gain respect as a journalistic outlet rather than a government mouthpiece, Russia Today seems content to take an explicitly pro-Russian, anti-US stance.

And then there’s the weird stuff. As Ilya Yablokov of the University of Leeds has observed, Russia Today seems to be trying to cultivate a US audience of conspiracy theorists. Yablokov notes that one of the first stories RT ran after launching RT America in 2010 was titled “911 Reasons Why 9/11 Was (Probably) an Inside Job”. The idea that the US government killed over 3000 of its own citizens, including 500 police officers and firefighters, as a pretext to invade Iraq, is deeply offensive to most Americans, and unlikely to win RT a broad US audience. But as Yablokov notes, that may not be the point.

There’s a long history in American politics of conspiracy theories gaining wide audiences. Historian Richard Hofstadter identified this in 1964 as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, a tendency for those who feel alienated and dispossessed to see America as controlled by a secret cabal. Knowing that it is unlikely to persuade the majority of Americans to see their government as a global hegemon and Russia as the tireless defender of sovereign nations, perhaps RT is appealing to those who are predisposed to “Question More”, as the network’s slogan suggests. While that approach won’t work for most Americans, it may work for the 19% of Americans who believe the government was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev suggests that a Russian focus on conspiracy theories, especially about outside agitation in creating “color revolutions” is consistent with Russia’s preferred framing of the world – sovereignty versus agitation – rather than the US’s preferred framing – democracy versus authoritarianism. Brian Whitmore, a senior correspondent for RL/RFE, argues that conspiracy theories suggest a government incapable of taking citizen movements seriouslydocumented attempts by the government of Azerbaijan to portray the internet as a dangerous and lawless space, linking internet usage to sexual abuse of children, trafficking of women, breakdowns of marriages and mental illness. The campaign has been quite successful, keeping 86% of Azeri women offline, and helping ensure that internet penetration in Azerbaijan has stayed far behind of its neighbors, Georgia and Armenia. Turkish media scholar Zeynep Tufekci suggests that Erdogan’s government has deployed similar tactics in Turkey, working to demonize social media in the hopes of keeping his large support base off these networks, which are heavily used by opposition organizers.

Raising doubt in online media as a whole might help explain why a Russian firm would start easily dismissed rumors on American social networks. The net effect of these rumors has been to remind American Internet users that everything they read online should be doubted before being vetted and verified. And RT’s main brand message is that Americans shouldn’t trust their government or their media, as both are hiding the “other side” of the narrative, and the secrets behind far-reaching conspiracies.

But the question remains: who benefits from doubt?

Historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have a possible answer. Their book “Merchants of Doubt” looks at techniques used by energy industry lobbyists in the US to create uncertainty and doubt about climate change. They trace these techniques back to the tobacco industry, which used similar tactics for decades to prevent tobacco from being regulated as a drug. Their key weapon was doubt. Tobacco companies sponsored legitimate medical research on other causes for cancer and heart disease. The net result was that they kept alive the appearance of a debate about whether tobacco use was the primary cause of lung cancer for far longer than there was an actual scientific debate. Similarly, climate scientists sponsored by energy companies insist that there is a diversity of opinion about humans’ role in creating climate change, relying on the media’s tendency to tell both sides of a story and keep a “debate” alive years beyond when it would otherwise be settled.

Who benefits from doubt? Ask instead who benefits from stasis. So long as there was doubt that cigarettes caused cancer, regulators were less willing to label packages, restrict their sales or ban them altogether. So long as there is doubt about humanity’s role in climate change, governments are less likely to pass carbon taxes, ban the burning of coal or subsidize the shift to renewable energy. It’s not necessary to persuade people that cigarettes are safe to smoke or that we can burn coal indefinitely without raising global temperatures – it’s enough to raise sufficient doubt to lead to paralysis.

Stasis benefits the Russian state. People baffled by claims and counterclaims over whether Russian troops are in Ukraine or whether the US toppled the Yanukovych government are less likely to demand NATO military intervention in Crimea. Russian citizens who wonder whether Alexei Navalny is an embezzeler are less likely to support his candidacy. Internet users who doubt whatever they see online are less likely to use social media to organize and topple those who are currently in power.

It’s expensive to persuade someone to believe something that isn’t true. Persuading someone that _nothing_ is true, that every “fact” represents a hidden agenda, is a far more efficient way to paralyze citizens and keep them from acting. It’s a dark art, one with a long past in Russia and in the US, and one we’re now living with online.

5 thoughts on “Who benefits from doubt? Online manipulation and the Russian – and US – internet”

  1. Though many people might contend that neoliberalism is the official ideology of the moment, I have long believed that our real belief system is more cynicism than anything else. This argument, Ethan, suggest that it is useful for many different national projects.

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  3. I like.

    Brief question:

    Why is RT trying to paralyze US citizens against organizing?

    Wouldn’t such a goal presume that:

    If US citizens paralyzed from organizing, THEN, US government less able to do activity that RT opposes?

    Seems contrary to what has happened. Maybe I’ve been drinking too much of the kool-aid, but it seems to me the US government has an easier time carrying out policy (e.g., facilitating democracy abroad), when citizen are not poking their noses in its business.

    So the this last part of the article doesn’t quite add up for me.

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