What do Russian “active measures” undertaken to interfere with the 2016 election have in common with tactics of the anti-pit bull movement?
One of the biggest stories of 2017 is the overt Russian , “active measures,” or interference in our 2016 election using various forms of cyber-intrusion and psychological warfare. The more I learned about how this operation was conducted and how it fits into Russia’s broader history, the methods and tactics they pioneered, perfected, and deployed started to seem a little, uh…familiar.
One of the more potent elements of the Russian effort was their use of large, anonymous “bot armies” that flooded Facebook, Twitter and social media at large. Sometimes “trolls” and sometimes automated “troll bots,” these accounts were there to push “fake news,” spread propaganda, and flood the running dialogue to skew it in the direction the Russian Intelligence Services (RIS) wanted, or at least cloud it beyond usefulness. When you start talking about groups of hateful, lying anonymous trolls on the Internet trying to spread lies and create the illusion that a large number of Americans think and feel the way they do, it is impossible not to think about the small cadre of emotionally unstable miscreants who comprise the core of the anti-pit bull movement. For years, and even still today, these avid trolls stalk Facebook, online newspaper comments sections, online polls and anywhere else they can ply their trade. Under the cloak of anonymity they create fake identities, have multiple accounts, copy and paste the same posts across multiple forums, and do their best to flood, dominate, and control any online conversation about pit bulls.
This broad tactic takes on another element of the Russian troll effort when they zero in on a specific community in an effort to affect the outcome of a vote about breed specific legislation. Much like Russians posed as Americans in an effort to affect the American conversation “from the inside,” the ant-pit bull trolls create fake identities (on Facebook or through email, not actual identity theft), pose as members of that community, and call and send emails to the council members in an effort to skew the perception of public sentiment and create the illusion that there is more support for the breed specific measure than there really is. We know this through our multiple dealings with these trolls and our contacts sitting on various city councils.
Another word that has entered the American popular lexicon thanks to Kremlingate is Kompromat or “compromising material that is used coercively.” I wish I could say this is a little too sophisticated and extreme for use by ant-pit bull zealots, but alas, I have first hand experience with it and I’m assuming I am not so special as to experience the only time in history it has ever happened during a pit bull ban consideration. A city councilwoman had to board her dogs until consideration and voting on a pit bull ban had concluded and the associated drama had “blown over.” She explained that she was over the pet limit and the ring leader of the pro-ban faction on the council knew this and was threatening to report her to animal control if she did not support the pit bull ban effort.
One of the tactics you will see from propaganda and information warfare practitioners is”projection” type counter-accusations where adversaries are accused of perpetrating the crime or tactic that you are accused of doing. Donald Trump is notorious for this and it is straight from the RIS playbook. Most recently Trump has parroted a Russian accusation that Ukraine meddled in US elections to try and harm Trump’s campaign, an obvious use of this tactic used to damage a Russian opponent and cloud Russian activities and possible ties to Trump.
We saw this recently from American anti-pit bull zealots who interfered in a political process in Canada. When Montreal was considering breed specific legislation, they had assembled a great deal of evidence from a broad spectrum of actual veterinary and dog behavior experts supporting a decision to remain breed neutral. The American anti-pit bull zealots, are a very small group who falsely present themselves as experts, create multiple “fronts” to give the impression they are bigger and more widely supported than they are, and use fabricated data to lead people to false conclusions to advance their archaic special interest. Late in the process in Montreal, they presented a packet of information to elected officials that accused their opponents of all those offenses. It was an audacious projection and a leveling of bald-faced lies that changed the course of that debate.
Whataboutism is tactic used to deflect criticism by changing the subject to the same, or perhaps a worse offense, committed by someone else. For example after being accused of something bad you could reply, “What about that person’s worse thing.” This tactic is used widely in Russia and by other autocratic states to deflect criticism, both internally and more specifically from the West. When presented with data disproving their claims that pit bulls are uniquely dangerous, instead of addressing that specific data, they will shift attention to something obviously awful that will get an emotional response and redirect the conversation from the rational, data based direction was previously heading. P1: “These numbers show that pit bulls are not uniquely dangerous.” P2: “What about the kid who was attacked in Small Town, USA.”
Russia has a sophisticated chain for disseminating Dezinformatsiya (disinformation), or deza, where messaging that is often times part truth and part lie (to add to confusion) will start with the Kremlin, work it’s way out through Russian propaganda networks and state media, and then find it’s way into broader media across the world. Once it has spread, it can have the appearance of originating “organically” rather than being a directed effort. During the election many of the things posted by bot-nets, trolls, and known alt-right and far-left sources could be traced directly back through this chain. (Pizzagate anyone?)
The flow of disinformation – colloquially called “bullshit” – from anti-pit bull zealots follows a similarly obfuscatory path. They do “studies” that are self reinforcing crap with just enough truth sprinkled in, circumvent a peer-review process and self publish them, cite to their own work when they write, and then put the whole mess out to the media presented as fact – and then cite to the media’s use of these “facts.” This “bullshit” gets printed, posted, and shared and before you know it, complete lies are being passed along as facts and they appear to have originated “organically.” This is all in addition to the much more simple acts of deza where they just make up lies and spread the same old disproven myths every time they get a chance. The sheer quantity and volume of this kind of disinformation campaign starts to work its way into the public consciousness as conventional wisdom. And the steady hum of fear mongering helps to create a climate that is ripe for these kind of manipulative tactics.
When Russians are seeking assets in a foreign theater, they don’t always need to directly co-op someone. Sometimes they will find a person who is gullible, greedy or simply naive who can just be manipulated easily. This “useful idiot” is not a direct Russian agent, per se, and is not even aware they are being used, but is, nevertheless, manipulated by RIS to accomplish their goals. Obviously, not every person who advocates for a breed ban is part of some broad conspiracy. But, when views align, a city councilman who wants to proclaim the dangerousness of pit bulls and try for a breed ban in their community will gladly latch on to the misinformation and propaganda made available by the zealots on public forums and by paid Google search placement. This person’s willingness to completely ignore the data put forth by actual experts and choose instead to seek out data that only confirms their previously held biases will find willing support from the anti-pit bull zealots who will be all to happy to use that person as their “useful idiot.” Most city councilors do not follow this issue beyond their own community’s encounter with it and they will be unaware they are being manipulated by an organized effort. Sometimes, more than just a useful idiot, a politician may cooperate and coordinate in a manner that looks more like collusion than manipulation.
There is a lesson in all of this though. Russian “active measures” are used to play upon thoughts, feelings, tensions, hatreds, passions, and circumstances and conditions that already exist. They are meant to use our own free press and free flow of information and our own predisposed tendencies against us by manipulating us – by being the devil on our shoulder coaxing us to give in to our lesser instincts. There is no proof that any votes were literally hacked – the Russians didn’t hack the vote, they hacked the voters. It’s like Pacino’s Satan character says in Devil’s Advocate, “I only set the stage, you pull your strings.”
The anti-it bull “active measures” are also designed to appeal to and manipulate fear and ignorance that is already present in us. In the end we still have to pull the lever. We still have to believe the lies, succumb to the fear, start thinking the worst of the people around us and act on our worst impulses. Until the anti-pit bull zealots reach a level of sophistication beyond merely hacking online polls, it will be up to us to use our heads, use critical thinking, and use a little compassion when considering the fate of all the dogs and all the dog owners caught up in this web.