Russia, U.S. Elections, and the Fake News Cycle

How to walk the line between awareness and conspiracy theory.

Published April 18, 2017

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Fake news was a prominent part of the 2016 election cycle, and Americans got a crash course in the ways that foreign powers use propaganda to tamper in elections when the U.S. intelligence community revealed their consensus belief that Russian government hackers interfered in the months leading up to November 2016 to help President Donald Trump secure a victory.  

Now, as dribs and drabs of detail about the relationship between Trump's associates and Russian president Vladimir Putin continue to leak and are ballyhooed by the American president as "fake news," it is more important than ever to understand how to separate real news from fanciful fictions.

Although the term "fake news" has been weaponized for political purposes like attacking the credibility of mainstream news organizations that report stories unpopular with the president and his supporters, it was a term that became popular as the 2016 election cycle wound down and the fact that a Russian-sponsored network of bots, trolls and a hodgepodge of dubious web sites collaborated to disrupt the election and in so doing, shake the trust in the groundwork of American democracy. Now that the political party that controls the levers of power has flipped, the opposition is ripe to be the new purveyors of "fake news" and conspiracy theories crafted to drum up mistrust.

During witness testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee on 30 March 2017, Clint Watts (a former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent and Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow) called the actions of the Kremlin "the second Cold War", and described their international efforts to disrupt the global order that has been in place since the end of World War II:

Russian active measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives: One, undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance; two, foment, exacerbate divisive political fissures; three, erode trust between citizens and elected officials and their institutions; four, popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations; and five, create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction -- a very pertinent issue today in our country.

From these objectives the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out, achieving two key milestones: One, the disillusion of the European Union; and two, the break-up of NATO.

The Russians targeted "any disaffected U.S. audience" with "active measures," a term that essentially means concentrated campaigns to exploit existing social tensions and divisions with the goal of weakening the country's global standing, allowing Russia more latitude to assert its own interests. Watts described how these efforts were then turned onto the 2016 presidential race — and made it clear the issue is a bipartisan one, even though the targeting of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign to bolster Trump got the most public attention at the time:

Russia's overt media outlets and covert trolls sought to sideline opponents on both sides of the political spectrum with adversarial views towards the Kremlin. They were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season and may have help sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed. Senator Rubio, in my opinion you anecdotally suffered from these efforts. ... This past week we observed social media accounts discrediting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, hoping to further foment unrest inside U.S. democratic institutions.

Alina Polyakova, Director of Research on Europe and Eurasia at the Atlantic Council, an international affairs think tank, said the Kremlin is more cynical than ideological in its approach to foreign influence. She told us that under Putin's influence, pragmatism outweighs any coherent set of principles, and Moscow will exploit whichever side of the political spectrum suits their interests in any given context:

Given the current political climate, the far right bet is paying off more handsomely than the far left one. If you’re sitting in Moscow and looking out into Europe, you want to have allies who are willing to espouse a pro-Russia line — if they also happen to be nationalists and economic populists and have certain ideas about immigration I don’t think it really matters to [the Kremlin]. There is an ideology behind Putinism. It is about an alternative to the Western liberal world view and it aligns nicely with political agendas of far-right parties in Europe.

From that, one can infer that Trump's opponents can easily find themselves acting as unwitting Kremlin tools, especially considering that conspiracy theories are used to attack the existing social order and power establishment.

Péter Krekó, a Fulbright scholar from Hungary and a visiting professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, told us:

The main advantage of conspiracy theories as political tools is that they can spread a general anti-establishment sentiment and they can destroy the credibility and trust in all the established leaders and institutions. It's not only an American phenomenon that conspiracy theorists are popping up and operating around anti-establishment candidates.

But once those same anti-establishment candidates succeed in getting hold of the reins of power, the same dynamic that secured their victory can easily be turned against them. Krekó compared conspiracy theories as a political tactic to a boomerang, as "they can hit you back when you are in power."

Because the levers of legislative control were dominated by Democrats for the past 8 years, conspiracy theories were more popular on the right. That will likely change in the coming months and years, with Republicans now controlling all sectors of the U.S. government, he said:

This is what some studies already show: That belief in conspiracy theories was strong before the U.S. election in the Republican camp because they felt themselves to be the ones out of power. Usually conspiracy theories are the tools of people who are out of power; they aim to destroy the current institutional setting. After the election there are some indications that Democratic voters believe more conspiracy theories because they target those in power.

Indeed, rumors of Trump-Russia collusion have already started dominating the Internet and social media. Examples of the hysteria include a false claim in the days immediately following President Trump's 20 January 2017 inauguration that the Treasury Department was following through on alleged promises made by Trump to President Vladimir Putin to lift Obama-era sanctions placed on Russia after it annexed Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula under the control of Ukraine until 2014.

In another instance, former British MP Louise Mensch tweeted to her 220,000-plus Twitter followers an unproven claim that the protests over the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson were funded by Russia. In yet another instance, the blog published an unproven claim that a Ukrainian-American businessman was a Trump-Russia conspirator who died under suspicious circumstances. (The man's family told us otherwise.)

BuzzFeed News journalist Charlie Warzel was the first to report that the dynamic described by Krekó is indeed playing out in real-time, and in full public view on Twitter. In a 12 February 2017 article, Warzel describes a growing cacophony of self-deputized "Twitter sleuths" who spend hours disseminating half-baked notions based on disparate facts drawn from often-unrelated media reports as "Blue Detectives":

Call it the Alex Jonesification of the left or the rise of the Blue Detectives — the pure id of a strand of conspiratorial thought of the left and the anti-Trump movement. It’s intriguing and eyeroll-inspiring all at once, but for the #resistance crowd it’s a mooring force. Most of all, it’s an effective messaging tactic: It’s designed to go viral, to spark outrage — and perhaps even action.

If you spend enough time online, you’ll see Blue Detectives springing up everywhere. Two weeks ago, Google engineer Yonatan Zunger wrote a post on Medium that went viral. In it, he laid out a succession of “raw news reports” suggesting that the haphazard rollout and enforcement of Trump’s refugee ban across the country “was the trial balloon for a coup d’etat against the United States.” In the spirit of Silicon Valley A/B testing “it gave them useful information,” he argued. But as some, including Slate, have pointed out, Zunger’s post sometimes elides fact in favor of intrigue: His suggestion that the Department of Homeland Security could become a force loyal to the President alone, for example, does not acknowledge that DHS Secretary John Kelly was reportedly unaware of the administration's immigration order until just moments before Trump signed it.

On Twitter, especially, the Blue Detectives are increasingly active in theorizing that Trump and his associates are involved in a dizzying multidimensional plot — and, crucially, are always 10 steps ahead of the American public. Perhaps the most infamous example comes from technology and business strategist Eric Garland’s “game theory” tweetstorm, which suggests a cunning on the part of the Trump administration and Russia to distract, dodge, and outwit the American public while bolstering its coffers and power. That 127-tweet screed plows through the last few decades of US foreign policy, ultimately arriving at a patriotic but empty conclusion devoid of any compelling revelations about Russia.

Like any poorly-sourced conspiracy theory, this half-baked effort has had consequences. Since the article was published, the movement has only grown, Warzel told us. In a follow-up story, BuzzFeed identified Mensch, a prolific Twitter user, as the "hub" of the "loose, crowdsourced investigation into Russian influence." Mensch was the subject of a harassment complaint filed with the FBI by Cassandra Fairbanks, an American reporter for the Kremlin-funded Sputnik news agency.

So how does one know who to trust in such an environment? Mitchell Orenstein, professor of Russian and Eastern European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and Naveed Jamali, a former intelligence operative who worked undercover for the FBI against Russian intelligence, told us that readers should do the opposite of what the Kremlin wants the public to do — trust institutions and trust professionals. Jamali told us:

There’s a reason people go to medical school to be doctors — it’s important to remember that. And there’s a reason there are professionals. In this case, when you think of investigative journalists, or you think of investigators, they’re just going to have access to facts. When there are so many rumors floating around, so many half-truths, these people are held to a standard in terms of how they disclose their findings, and I think it’s very different than being a Twitter user. I don’t mean that as a slight. Social media’s a great marketplace for the exchange of information. But to take hypotheses that you’re formulating… I’ve heard terms like “citizen journalist” or “curators of information” — what they’re doing is taking articles, some sort of facts, and they’re claiming links to them. And look, they may be right — but they don’t have any proof to support it. And that’s just not the way investigations work.

It’s very easy to go on Twitter and follow someone who’s constantly curating, or collating, or whatever they call it, to come up with ideas. It’s a real temptation. The problem is that the real work that’s happening is not visible until it comes out, because there’s a whole different standard, and it’s slow. I’m very concerned that [what they do] delegitimizes real work.

Malcolm Nance, an intelligence expert and counterterrorism officer with the United States government (and author of a book, published in October 2016, titled "The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election") was even more blunt, saying that laypeople are confusing intelligence with evidence, and thus potentially cherrypicking disparate and unrelated events and weaving them into a narrative without understanding what they don't know:

Intelligence isn't evidence — evidence is a legal term. But we're actually there already! We've got sixteen intelligence agencies that have created the base of evidence for an FBI investigation. This has never happened in the history of America, that a president and his campaign may be working for, or working in collusion, or unwittingly, for foreign intelligence agencies.

Orenstein pointed to the work of the country's flagship news publications, who have been aggressively and consistently breaking stories and covering the scandal:

I think the reporting from the New York Times andWashington Post has been really solid. They have great experts who really understand the issues. I don't tend to trust many web sites. If I see something on a web site — does it correspond with what the mainstream media is saying on this?

Where the investigation stands

Right now, Orenstein described the scandal as an unfinished Pointillism painting: there's a picture emerging of what happened, but many of the details remain unclear. Because of the scope of it, investigations and public disclosure may take a long time:

To do a real and legitimate investigation is going to take a long time and that’s been frustrating to a lot of people. We’re going to have to be concerned about this for a while, and things are going to drip drop out. A lot of us [who are experts in the field] know or think we know this is going to pan out to be a major, major scandal that rivals Watergate and probably will raise questions about impeachment of the president.

We have a lot of sources and people we talk to who know more than what’s published in the media. For me it feels like a slow motion revelation that we can see three or four steps down the line. But I understand that people experience every little twist and turn along the way — people don’t quite want to believe it or know what to believe. I would just advise people that we are living in a rather fantastical reality and it’s going to come crashing down on somebody at some point. ...

The most likely scenario here is that there was a lot of money that changed hands. ... I think there’s a money part of this and a campaign part of this — [what we don't know is] what exactly is the linkage between these things? Most likely someone was buying influence in the Trump campaign. It’s not really whether it happened, it’s exactly how it happened.

Intelligence committee hearings in the House of Representatives and Senate have been on hold as Congress is on recess, but the House Intelligence Committee hearings left on a dramatic note when, on 20 March 2017, FBI Director James Comey publicly announced that the Bureau is investigating alleged Russian election interference:

As you know, our practice is not to confirm existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters. But in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so as Justice Department policies recognize. This is one of those circumstances. I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counter-intelligence mission is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. And that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat who serves on the permanent committee, told us the moment gave him chills:

Once [Comey] did that, the gravity of what had happened sunk in for people. I think that was an awakening. His confirmation of an ongoing investigation validated the concerns that many people had about coordination between U.S. persons and Russia.

The House committee's investigation hit a bump in the road when Chairman Devin Nunes was forced to recuse himself after sharing information with the White House before looping in his fellow committee members — a move that incurred the wrath of his Democratic counterparts who accused him of being too close to the president to be trusted to lead the investigation. Texas Republican Mike Conway will take his place.

Swalwell said the House investigation is back on track. He believes public hearings will soon resume, and hinted that the committee may use its subpoena power to get hold of President Trump's elusive tax returns. Swalwell also told us he has authored a bill that would establish an independent, full-time commission to investigate the Russian intervention. Currently, the bill (entitled the "Protecting Our Democracy Act") is stalled in the House, with only one Republican signing on.

Swalwell added that he has hope that a bipartisan desire to secure future elections from the influence of foreign powers will overcome the fear that an investigation threatens the legitimacy of the current administration. He said he was a teenaged intern at the Capitol when the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks took place, and because of that he knows it is possible that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle can unite:

I feel the same duty to act as those leaders did back in 2001, and what I fear is that this attack has divided us. In that division we are more vulnerable going into the next election, not just to Russia but also to other countries that have similar capabilities.


Warzel, Charlie. "The New Twitter Detectives Want to Bring Down Trump Without Becoming Alex Jones."   BuzzFeed.  12 February 2017.

Bernstein, Joseph. The Crowdsourced Russia Twitter Investigation Has Prompted a Harassment Complaint."     &BuzzFeed.   10 April 2017.

Huetteman, Emmarie.   "Mike Conaway Emerges from Relative Obscurity to Lead House Russia Inquiry."     The New York Times.   16 April 2017.

Demirjian, Karoun. "House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes Recuses Himself from Russia Probe."   The Washington Post. 6 April 2017.

Brooke Binkowski is a former editor for Snopes.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who has been working in the news industry since 2006.