It’s easy to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin and the various intelligence agencies he oversees for the political discord hemorrhaging Washington, D.C., and the rest of the country.
The intelligence community determined (pdf) in January that the Kremlin deployed a bevy of tactics to sway public opinion in favor of Donald Trump. Recent reports found that Moscow tried to hack election machines before Election Day and sent phishing emails to elected officials to cause more chaos. The nation’s politics have devolved in an ever-downward spiral since. An independent investigation probing the Trump campaign’s complicity in the madness is ongoing, though it may not calm the calamity his short presidency has caused—even if it ultimately forces Trump out of office.
Yes, Russia did meddle in last year’s presidential election, but people have to be gullible and racist enough to be exploited by Moscow’s deployment of right-wing fake news appearing in their social media timelines. While fake news may have swayed voters’ opinions, Russia didn’t vote Trump into office.
White people did that.
During Russia-investigation hearings on the Hill in March, former counterintelligence experts testified that ethnic division is a hallmark of Russia’s fake-news strategy. Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert, said (pdf), “Russia targets specific audiences inside electorates amenable to their messages and resulting influence—in particular ‘alt-right’ audiences incensed over immigration, refugees and economic hardship.”
Former intelligence officials and scholars who study the intersection of race and electoral politics told The Root that it is not surprising that much of the fake news that targeted the United States was rooted in racist sentiments.
“This country was founded on white supremacy, predicated entirely on black racism,” said Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “So if you have everybody paying attention to their anti-black racism, you can feed them any stories you want. It can be about Negroes coming to get you, but then it easily transfers to Muslims—especially since 9/11—and any brown skin people.”
The impact of these fake-news attacks is still being studied, but what is clear is that many white Trump supporters are actually OK with the possibility that Kremlin interference won the White House for Trump.
“If that’s what it took,” David Gubert, a Trump supporter, told the New York Times in January. “I’m glad they did it.”
In The Root’s new series, the Black Guide to Russia, each story will analyze the latest developments of the Russia investigation with a fresh, black perspective. While special counsel Robert Mueller investigates Trump, The Root will investigate the social conditions that made the American populace so vulnerable to being played.
Even if it is confirmed that Trump colluded with Moscow, that likely will not explain why, for example, 53 percent of white women voted for him. That is not a Russia problem. It’s a domestic issue independent of the Kremlin that requires as deep an analysis of white America’s racism as does the hybrid warfare that Russia waged to exploit it.
How Vital Was Fake News in the 2016 Election?
Putin has long rejected claims that the Kremlin had anything to do with meddling in last year’s elections. But during a press conference in June, he joked that Russian “patriots” may have been behind the Democratic National Committee hack, but were never ordered by Moscow to do so. The FBI, however, believes that Russia deployed fake-news conspiracy stories about Hillary Clinton on Election Day, according to CNN.
In its January assessment, Russian state media outlets like Sputnik and RT were identified as some of the main pushers of fake news.
One example was a story pushed by RT and Sputnik about a Turkish air force base being overrun by terrorists. Within 75 minutes, Watts and his colleagues tracked 4,000 tweets spreading the fake story. The hashtags used to push the story were #nuclear, #media, #Trump and #Benghazi. In the profiles pushing the tweets, the most common words were “God,” “military,” “Trump,” “family,” “country,” “conservative,” “Christian,” “America” and “Constitution.”
During the campaign, Trump instinctively repeated the words “radical Islam,” which he knew would rile up large segments of the country. Many Trump supporters hold racist views toward Muslims, immigration and black people, something the Russians could easily exploit.
“If you’re Russia, you’re going to pay attention to that because that’s your job to know what the opposition is doing and what’s a viable opposition to invest in,” a former CIA counterterrorism officer who tracked online messaging of terrorists in the Middle East told me.
The officer, who asked that his name not be used because of the nature of his past intelligence work, said that there was a time when one could argue that white nationalist (or alt-right) supporters would not be a target audience to invest in because it was unlikely they’d gain power. But last year’s election proved that exploiting racism is a viable target for a hostile intelligence agency.
“A lot of Americans tend to think [common sense] will reign,”the officer said. “We won’t get to the visceral nature. But that can happen to people when they think America is not working for them anymore. You get back to the base tactics of ‘I hate everybody. We have two oceans. I don’t give a damn about anybody.’ Then you get Trump.”
Russia (and America) Has a Long History of Exploiting Racial Strife for Political Gain
In order for fake news to work, you have to believe it. Our news feeds are saturated with misleading and false stories about any given subject, and it is up to readers to exercise media literacy to ascertain their validity. But human nature doesn’t exactly work that way. We click on links that confirm our biases, whether the stories are true or not.
Christian Gant, a former counterintelligence officer who spent more than four years at the FBI and the CIA conducting surveillance operations against Russian targets, said that part of any intelligence officer’s job is to pick up on social discord that his agency can exploit. However, what was troubling about what Russia did was that it has convinced conservatives that it is not a bad thing to have relations with Russia. He said he is particularly troubled that elected officials like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) are essentially actively acting as Putin surrogates in Washington.
“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t do that,” Gant said. “But President Putin was able to convince a large segment of the United States that Russians are not our enemy. That is a textbook covert influence campaign. And the way that you do that is find individuals who are apt to believe that [Russia is not our adversary] and you grasp on to their racism, lack of intellect and support a person like Donald Trump who panders to that. If Donald Trump says it’s OK, then it must not be bad. You have Sean Hannity sending out tweets that say, ‘Make Russia great again.’ Had [CNN’s] Don Lemon done that, they’d be trying to put him in jail and calling him a traitor. Now you can say that and it is not a problem.”
None of this is particularly surprising, given how effective the Kremlin is at the art of divide and conquer.
In 2007, pro-Russia news sites pushed a story that the Estonian government had destroyed a World War II statue that carries strong emotional and historical sentiment for the Russian population that makes up 30 percent of Estonian citizens. The story was fake, but it stoked tensions among Russians who already felt marginalized by ethnic Estonians.
But we don’t have to look to Russia for examples of media manipulation designed to evoke the worst out of white Americans. The 1906 Atlanta race riots that resulted in the murders of black men and children by white mobs were spurred by local fake-news reports of black men raping white women.
Cliff Kuhn, a history professor at Georgia State University, told NPR that Atlanta’s growing black population at the time led to racial anxiety that resulted in violent attacks on black people. But when local papers printed false stories of black men raping white people, it set off riots. Kuhn explains:
Newsboys are hawking these editions: “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” And at the corner of Pryor and Decatur Street, a man gets up on a soapbox and waves one of these newspaper headlines and says, “Are we going to let them do this to our white women? Come on, boys!” And the mob surges down Decatur Street.
The reports were not true, but that didn’t stop them from profiting from white Atlantans’ racism, as Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University, told NPR in the same report:
There was intense competition among newspapers, [with] four white papers in town. What builds up circulation more than race and sex, sensational stories of black men preying on white women? Editorials warned white women to stop sitting in the front seat of their carriages with their black drivers because a black man on the street who sees them will “get ideas.”
As we continue to observe the investigation into how Russia used fake news to manipulate the American populace, we must not forget that American media have historically done the same thing.
And it didn’t take Russian spies acting on the Kremlin’s orders to do it.
It will likely take months, or even years, to determine how much and to what degree Russia’s use of fake news tapped into white Americans’ racial anxiety. Though any results of the fake-news portion of Mueller’s Russia collision investigation will have to confront the reality that white Americans’ racial anxiety may have been riled up by lies spread on social media, motivating them to vote against their own self-interests and those of America.
“At the end of the day, we’re fucked up,” the CIA operative told me. “America had to pass an IQ test. And we failed.”