From Russia, With Absurdity
Before I get into the absurdities of “Russiagate” and McCarthyism 2.0, let me point out that I do, in fact, dislike Donald Trump and the Republican Party establishment. I also dislike Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment. Those feelings are not mutually exclusive.
For some reason, our country’s political discourse is like a single-throw switch. You can only either be Republican or Democrat. Leaving aside the fact that in 2016, Independents accounted for almost 40 percent of registered voters, more than Democrats (32 percent) and Republicans (23 percent), the idea that we can only exist in one extreme or the other is the kind of absurd paradigm that both civil wars and sandbox tiffs are made of.
It is also what Russiagate is made of. On our two-dimensional political stage, all cameras are focused on a blurry, nebulous mass labeled “Russia did it.” The political theater involved with turning this heap of fallacies and conjecture into something that rivals Pearl Harbor and 9/11 is as impressive as it is terrifying.
The entire media machine is exhausting itself running anti-Russia stories nonstop, as if the entire world has set aside all its differences, crises and disasters just so we would have nothing else to report on. On four separate occasions at four different airports, I found myself bombarded with televisions blaring, “Russia meddled in our elections and stole the crown from Hillary” on repeat. On my final early morning flight, I looked around for Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, but neither they nor a buck-toothed rodent were anywhere to be found.
What’s also nowhere to be found is how any of the recent indictments prove that the Russian government dismantled our democracy via Facebook ads. Let’s start with the latter point: What do we know about these ads and their power to disrupt our democracy?
The key figure in these latest indictments is a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). In a 2015 New York Times article, author Adrian Chen speaks with a former employee who had recently released an exposé on the company. The ex-employee, Ludmilla Savchuk, describes an intense and depressing work environment: 12-hour days, shady employment practices and the emotional toll of posting vitriol and lies.
The IRA clearly doesn’t care about best business practices—or indeed turnaround. Savchuk wasn’t the only one to call it quits. Several of the people listed in Robert Mueller’s indictment don’t even work for the company anymore. Some haven’t worked there since 2014, a solid two years before the election. Other details regarding the company’s practices contrast with the picture painted by Mueller and the establishment.
As noted by Savchuk, most of the posts she and her colleagues were charged with creating weren’t strictly political. Even CNN concedes that most of the IRA’s work around election time wasn’t about the U.S. election. Rather, the bulk of IRA’s work focused on making Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin look good, a goal shared by hundreds of trolls, particularly since the anti-government protests in 2011. Seeing the potential for dissent to spread over the internet, Putin’s government came down hard, passing Orwellian laws that ramped up online censorship and surveillance against those trying to express opinions that run counter to Putin’s platform.
The online wars didn’t stop there, however, and the Internet Research Agency soon shifted some focus to the fact that “the foreign internet was biased four to one against Russia.” Posts and pages started popping up in English. Chen highlights one in particular called Spread Your Wings, a supposed pro-America page that “posted photos of American flags and memes about how great it was to be an American, but the patriotism rang hollow once you tried to parse the frequent criticisms of [Barack] Obama, an incoherent mishmash of liberal and conservative attacks that no actual American would espouse.” Fast-forward to today, and the bewildering, often comical ads attributed to the IRA are just as convincing.
There’s one that shows Jesus and Satan arm-wrestling as Satan proclaims, “If I win, Clinton wins!” Jesus wittily retorts, “Not if I can help it!” The post urges viewers to “Press Like to help Jesus win!” The post was run on a page called Army of Jesus, with a demure profile pic of the white savior. The post also points out that “Donald Trump isn’t a saint” but that “he cares deeply for this country” and “is an honest man.”
Another ad, called the Buff Bernie coloring ad, features Bernie Sanders in an Adonis stance, with multicolored limbs and a teal White House in the background. The post claims that the image is part of a coloring book for Berniacs featuring “attractive doodles of Bernie Sanders in muscle poses.” Apparently, it’s also “something that suits for all people.” It’s unclear whether this ad is supposed to attract you to Bernie or scare you. As a bi woman, all I can say is that I’m uncomfortable and will now be more diligent in screening the coloring books I give to my niece. If that was Russia’s goal, well done.
The idea that ads like these swung an election is, for lack of a better phrase, fucking absurd.
Last October, Facebook’s newsroom reported that 10 million people in the U.S. saw the ads. The report also states that only 44 percent of the ad impressions occurred before the election, meaning that the majority happened after. Furthermore, roughly 25 percent of the ads were never shown to anyone. Later that month, Facebook told Congress that 126 million Americans had seen “divisive content” posted by “Russian agents.” Ads are not specified, nor do we know what is specifically meant by “divisive.” Still, even on the high side, by Facebook’s own admission, the IRA posts were equivalent to 1 in 23,000 of Facebook’s posts.
As former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein pointed out in a recent MSNBC interview, the fact that her campaign got a mention or two in these Russian ads “compared to trillions of ads on Facebook” just doesn’t even “pass the laugh test.” The idea that those who did see or click those ads were thereby swayed to vote against Clinton doesn’t pass the laugh test either. Rob Goldman, vice president of ads for Facebook, wrote in a thread on Twitter earlier in February: “I have seen all the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”
Furthermore, Facebook’s own algorithm is structured to show you things that you already agree with. Known as “filter bubbles,” Facebook builds an online experience that coddles your bias and keeps you away from opposing perspectives, even if they feature a rather sharp-looking graphic of Satan and Jesus.
Speaking of which, it’s worth noting that not all of the Russian’s click-baity posts were a success. The Jesus Trump vs. Satan Clinton got a mere 71 impressions and 14 clicks. The creepy and colorful Bernie only garnered 848 impressions and 54 clicks. Meanwhile, a recent post featuring a Noam Chomsky quote on a page that I co-manage has more than 2,000 impressions (even though the page is relatively small). A paint company got more than 100 million impressions for heteronormative posts about paint color names. I never saw the paint ads, and chances are good that you didn’t either.
Does this mean I think it’s OK to create fake ads of any kind in order to trick people or make money off their gullibility? No. I actually feel the same way about advertising as comedian Bill Hicks did. That said, I don’t think that fake ads aligned to your existing biases should get credit for undermining our shining city upon the hill. For that matter, fake events shouldn’t either.
According to the Mueller indictments, several rallies and marches were organized and/or co-organized by Russian trolls. The only problem is that, much like the ads, there’s no evidence to suggest that they had any effect on the election. For starters, of the eight marches listed in the indictment, three took place after the election. The first two, “March for Trump” and “Down with Hillary,” may never have taken place. No written or photographic evidence exists of either rally. The third, “Support Hillary, Save American Muslims,” was scheduled for July outside the White House, but if anyone showed up, no evidence exists of that rally either. The fourth, “Florida Goes Trump,” was a series of flash mobs and rallies held in Florida cities on Aug. 20, 2016. But here again, despite a relatively solid interest in the event page on Facebook, turnout was either minimal or not documented. For instance, one video from Pensacola shows eight Trump supporters on a street corner holding flags. Another rally consists of another eight Trump supporters holding signs outside a Bass Pro Shop in Fort Myers. Spring Hill, though, really ramped it up, with 15 supporters across the street from a Walmart.
Now, if you’re thinking that perhaps there’s still cause for concern, let’s entertain that idea. As Aric Toler from Bellingcat wrote in an article last September, “Russians starting an event page that leads to real Americans holding a political rally is a capability to keep an eye on, but we should also keep our ear on what was actually produced in the Pensacola flash mob: eight people unable to simultaneously yell an anti-Hillary Clinton slogan, with their voices drowned out by the wind and passing traffic.” However, even this thought process is missing the point. As harsh Putin critic Masha Gessen wrote recently in The New Yorker, “Even the fact that Russians put money into organizing rallies and demonstrations across the political spectrum would be absurd: surely they didn’t force people to join these rallies. If sincerely held beliefs brought people to the rallies, then it makes no difference to the broader political life whether someone paid for an actress to take part. …”
Is it messed up? Absolutely. Does it prove that Russian trolls changed the course of history? Um, no. Nor can it be said that Russia has widened the divisions in our country. In the same thread on Twitter, Goldman says that the real aim of the Russian ads was to divide our nation, saying Americans were “puppeted” into the streets at protests organized by the IRA. While it’s true that a few events were created by the IRA, you can’t credit Russia with dividing us. We are and have been a country divided. Just because we’re only now seeing deep divisions come to light on Twitter and Facebook feeds doesn’t mean that this country hasn’t been deeply divided along race, class and gender lines since, oh, forever. That fascists feel emboldened to take to the streets and loudly proclaim their hatred isn’t Russia’s fault. It’s our fault—the fault of our system, the fault of our apathy, the fault of our silence.
I’d love it if we could simply blame a troll named I Am Ass for turning brother against brother, but reality doesn’t work that way. And Ass aside, blaming the Russian government isn’t a clear-cut route either.
Back in 2016, corporate media used a self-proclaimed invalid Washington Post article as the main foundation for their blame of Russian hackers and headlines touting that “all news we hate is Russian.” The Democratic National Committee leaks were supposedly perpetrated by hackers that had expensive digital equipment, were after sensitive and embarrassing information, had anti-American government aims and must therefore be tied to the Russian government.
Fast-forward to today, and the indictment of 13 Russian trolls smacks of the same forced connections and arrogance. According to Chen’s research for The New York Times, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the IRA is funded by an “oligarch restaurateur” who has very close ties to the Kremlin and Putin. Other outlets echo the uncertainty, with phrases like “linked to the Kremlin” or “believed to be funded by a man with close ties to Putin.” In other words, we don’t know. And it kind of feels like you should be a little bit more sure if you’re threatening World War III.
After all, we’ve been here before—with Mueller, in fact. As the director of the FBI after 9/11, he did his bit for the fear factory by announcing that suicide bombings in the U.S. were inevitable and Americans should brace themselves. In 2003, he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that “Iraq’s WMD [weapons of mass destruction] program poses a clear threat to our national security.” Mueller’s past disinterest in the facts should be of great interest to us. The frenzy surrounding some failed events and fake ads should raise eyebrows and questions about why we need to care so much. What are we trying to hide? And like the WMD debacle, for what are we trying to manufacture consent?
If the Russian government had anything to do with these actions, that is disconcerting. Foreign governments should not meddle in the elections of other countries—even if those elections are horrendously corrupt. But beyond disconcerting, it would also be really surprising that a superpower government couldn’t do better than eight people at a rally and some poorly translated Jesus posts. That a massive oligarchical regime known for covert spy missions can’t create a slicker, more cohesive campaign designed to dismantle a flimsy, corrupt voting process like ours—well, that’s just sad.
And ultimately, unbelievable.
And while Mueller plays Joseph McCarthy in a shitty remake with a less star-studded cast, our elections are being meddled with—both here and abroad. There is extensive commentary (Greg Palast is a good place to start) on the rigging of our elections, be it through voting machines with proprietary software that can’t be checked by independent observers or endeavors like Interstate Cross Check, which knocks people with typically Hispanic or black last names from the voter rolls. In a too-real-to-be-funny twist, Mueller cites voter suppression as another goal of the Russian trolls. I can only assume he’s just pissed that someone is trying to beat us at our own game.
Indeed, election rigging has been a home game for decades, and neither major party is a rookie. Gerrymandering is a favorite on both sides. Voting rights laws and the aforementioned voter-roll tampering is popular on the red team, while the blue team prefers keeping its own ranks clear of would-be rising stars with “provisional ballots” (aka placebo ballots). They’re not much for the grass-roots farm teams. Still, foreign influence has been an active player for more than just this past season. And it wasn’t Russian.
Cambridge Analytica is a British company that prides itself on influencing elections. Using what’s known as psychographic profiling, it collects data points (currently boasting of 5,000 data points on every American) and creates detailed behavioral and personality profiles that include political leanings. It does this by gathering personal data from a wide spectrum of sources, including those little benign-looking quizzes and surveys that pop up on your Facebook feed. Before jumping over to Trump’s campaign, it worked with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and in 2014 alone, it was involved in 44 U.S. political races.
The Cambridge Analytica website boasts of having more than 25 years of experience influencing elections on five continents. “Within the United States alone, we have played a pivotal role in winning presidential races as well as congressional and state elections.” Indeed, in a press release issued after Trump’s victory, the site boasts that “Cambridge Analytica was instrumental in identifying supporters, persuading undecided voters, and driving turnout to the polls.”
And did I mention that it’s British? Cambridge Analytica’s CEO is Alexander Nix, a British national who looks almost as benign as his online quizzes that built a psychological warfare empire. The company was founded as an offshoot of British parent company SCL Group specifically to deal with American elections. Partly funded by American hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica’s five-continent political psy-ops warfare sees no borders.
You may recognize Mercer’s name from the sugar daddy list at Breitbart and Citizens United. Citizens United, of course, is the organization that rose to infamy in the 2010 Supreme Court case that ruled that corporations can funnel as much money as they want into elections, poor proles be damned. Perhaps somewhere in the liner notes of the court’s decision is something about how the British are allowed to play lab rat with the American public during elections. To be fair, Mercer did return the favor a couple of years ago when Cambridge Analytica proudly and loudly proclaimed its influence on the Brexit vote.
After all these years, the colonies and the British empire are back together again. Sure, it’s a sick, psychologically twisted partnership built on pushing far-right agendas and undercutting what shreds of a democratic process we have left, but it’s clearly one we’re OK with.
Why else would Mueller be indicting Russians who didn’t even work at the Internet Research Agency during the elections? Why else would he be ignoring evidence suggesting that tampering with our elections wasn’t even their goal? Why else would we be desperately stretching a thin, flimsy story when a mass of information about U.S. election meddling is available at our fingertips?
And that’s not even to mention our own affinity for meddling in foreign elections—in far more profound ways than online personality tests (i.e., staging coups, propping up dictators, invading countries, etc.). Indeed, when discussing the absurdity of Russian involvement in the DNC leaks, former United Kingdom Ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray said, “It is extremely amusing for the CIA to be accusing another country of interfering in domestic elections, when interfering in other [countries’] domestic elections on scores of occasions is what the CIA has done to effect regime change for the last 70 years, so really, this is almost beyond satire.”
Yet, despite being beyond satire, this is a deeply serious situation. You and I may be able to muster an uncomfortable chuckle when we hear John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, say that there’s no way to prove Russia had any influence on the election “but it seems likely that it did have some impact.” We may shake our heads in disbelief when the MSNBC host’s only retort after Jill Stein rattles off a list of domestic election fraud points is, “But that’s not Russian interference.” We may find it surprising and interesting when Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, founder of Pussy Riot, says that American liberals are scapegoating Putin to distract from the Democratic Party’s problems.
But it’s deeper than that.
The Cold War stayed cold, but barely. With war hawks in almost every seat in Congress and an unstable child at the helm backed by fascist sociopaths, we have to take this witch hunt seriously. We have to take our corporate media’s obsession as a warning sign. They have been tapped by the powers that be to manufacture truth from a mountain of lies and conjecture. They have been tapped to manufacture consent.
Our job, then, is to shut down the fear factory—to disable the vast propaganda war machine by refusing to buy into the bullshit. We know what the American empire is capable of creating in order to destroy. And whatever comes of this Red Scare will rest squarely on our shoulders as American citizens. Not the Russians, not the Brits, but us.