In partnership with the Stanford Internet Observatory, Lawfare is publishing a series assessing the threat of foreign influence operations targeting the United States. Contributors debate whether the threat of such operations is overblown, voicing a range of views on the issue. For more information on the series, click here.
Let’s get one issue off the table: The evidence that there are Russian information operations aimed at the United States is overwhelming, and whatever debates there can be about the operations should be only about whether they merit the attention given to them, not whether they exist.
That said, there is no publicly available evidence that establishes that these operations have made any difference worth caring about.
When my co-authors and I investigated the impact of the Russian campaign in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, we found that Russian actors didn’t meaningfully add to the impact of domestic actors. Russian operations mostly took the form of jumping on the bandwagon: disseminating a frame or story that had already been circulating in the right-wing media ecosystem, the mainstream press, or both. For example, we examined Russian Facebook posts or Twitter campaigns about voter fraud that were described in the indictment handed down against the Internet Research Agency. We found that these posts and tweets were indeed associated with significant upticks in all online mentions of “voter fraud,” but the causal direction was the opposite of what one might assume if one were seeking Russian influence. In each case, the Russian intervention came days after statements Trump made in a campaign speech or on Twitter. These comments were reported not only on Fox News and across the right-wing media ecosystem but also by major mainstream outlets. It was only after millions of Americans had been exposed to the new intervention on mass media that the Russian posts or tweets began. Occasionally we identified a campaign that we could trace explicitly to, say, the Podesta email dump and a Sputnik reporter moonlighting, or the Guccifer 2.0-Adam Carter-Forensicator line of attack on the Russian origins of the Democratic National Committee hack—but all these paled in comparison to the impact of the sustained disinformation campaign that Breitbart, Judicial Watch and the Trump campaign waged that successfully created a vastly overblown public perception of corruption at the Clinton Foundation. Not to mention then-FBI Director James Comey’s reckless communications regarding the Clinton email investigations—particularly the last-minute announcement of reopening and then closing the investigation—which dominated the media ecosystem and drowned out other stories in the last week before the election.
In our current work on the 2020 election, we similarly found that domestic actors are causing more harm than foreign ones. The disinformation campaign that persuaded half of surveyed Republicans and nontrivial minorities of Democrats that mail-in voting involves major election fraud is coming from President Trump and the Republican Party. Perhaps there are Russian trolls or Facebook pages pushing this or that bit of the narrative. But the disinformation battle about mail-in voting is a mass media campaign driven by political party elites. Any social media impact is a downstream consequence from that.
But if Russians are in fact mounting any information operations, shouldn’t the public be vigilant and raise the alarm anyway? Even if they are not the main game in town, they are still doing something that is illegal and against which we should defend, no?
The question has to be answered based on the objective of the disinformation campaign. If the objective is to get discrete false facts or frames communicated to target audiences, then yes, researchers and people in government should focus on it and there is no harm in emphasizing the threats of Russian disinformation. There have been excellent discrete studies of Russian propaganda aimed to achieve specific beliefs, such as the campaign to besmirch the White Helmets in Syria. These studies suggest that researchers certainly need to maintain an effort to monitor and identify, contain, and counter Russian information operations.
But most Russian information operations aren’t aimed at pushing concrete facts. It’s widely known that internally, in Russia itself and in its near periphery, the broad strategic thrust that Russian propaganda has focused mostly on is achieving disorientation, a state of “nothing is true and everything is possible,” as Peter Pomerantsev put it so well. It is that general disorientation, rather than a specific belief in a specific false fact or frame, that renders an opponent ungovernable. Beating the drums about disinformation campaigns aimed at this kind of disorientation is harmful, rather than helpful. If the objective of the campaign is to sow doubt and confusion, to make Americans believe that we have been infiltrated and that Russia is an all-powerful actor messing with our democracy, then overstating the importance of the campaign simply reinforces and executes the Russian plan.
To appear powerful and dangerous, all Russian actors need to do is make sure they are described as powerful and dangerous by credible sources in the United States. And for now, it seems that they are succeeding in doing just that. They have made a show of mounting information operations. And although there is no publicly available evidence that these operations have had any meaningful impact on voting or other behaviors and beliefs at a mass population level, their observed efforts have triggered extensive news reporting, published research and government readiness responses. Having triggered an autoimmune response, Russian actors can sit back to enjoy seeing well-intentioned and unwitting instruments report their campaigns widely and give them much more weight than they deserve.
At the end of the day, though, propaganda itself was never the true problem. Yes, the United States is in a state of information disorder. As the country’s ineffective response to the coronavirus suggests, the U.S. is becoming ungovernable. But the origins of this disorientation are not foreign. They are part of a much broader decline in trust in institutions in America, and that decline is itself the result of four decades of broad-based economic insecurity and cynical manipulation of genuine pain by domestic political and media elites.
The crisis of democratic societies is certainly worsened by propaganda and disinformation. That propaganda is primarily of domestic origin, harnessed and used by political opportunists. But propaganda is merely the handmaiden. The driving force of democratic malaise is a decades-long extractive political economy. Between one-quarter and one-half of Americans report some measure of significant income or savings insecurity, seeing no future for themselves and their children as they see elites escape ever more rapidly into a stratosphere of wealth and privilege. Stamping out Russian bots or even domestic propaganda can do only so much.