On 20 September 2017, just hours after a consortium of high-profile figures from the American entertainment industry, news media and intelligence community formally announced the formation of the Committee to Investigate Russia (CIR), social media bots, paid trolls, and “useful idiots” kicked into high gear.
The newly-formed organization was launched by director and actor Rob Reiner, with aims to “help Americans recognize and understand the gravity of Russia’s continuing attacks on our democracy”. The web site aggregates relevant information about the Russian active measures, hacking and collusion investigations into one place and offers links to relevant news stories, timelines, and a list of key players.
Its inaugural video features Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman cautioning Americans in his famous baritone about Russian influence operations and saying in regards to Russian interference in the 2016 election, “We were attacked. We are at war.” But even as the organization aims to point the spotlight on the Kremlin’s attempts to influence Americans’ political and social behavior, predictably, Russia-linked bots and trolls retaliated with social media-driven attacks that followed now-familiar patterns.
Andrew Weisburd, non-resident fellow at Alliance for Securing Democracy (a bipartisan, transatlantic initiative housed at The German Marshall Fund of the United States) and one of the researchers behind Hamilton68, a real-time tool that tracks Russian influence operations on Twitter, told us that the reaction seems driven in part by the success of countermeasures like CIR, which are elevating the American public’s awareness of a hostile world power’s efforts to influence them:
It is certainly *a* type of attack, not the only one, but one that to me suggests it they are increasingly sensitive to being held accountable for their own actions.
Keeping in mind that I’m not privy to Kremlin discussions of the matter, it seems clear to me that repeated public exposure of active measures campaigns, continually driving home the same basic point, that the Kremlin has harmed the United States and is continuing to do so, is very effective. I also suspect that Russians may put more stock in what celebrities say than many Americans do. If Steven Seagal’s opinion matters, so does Morgan Freeman’s. Certainly, as dedicated propagandists, they would see the value in Freeman delivering the CIR message.
(Seagal, while perhaps most famous for starring in 1992’s Under Siege, has in recent years occupied himself with making a string of low-budget, direct-to-video action movies — and with building a friendship with President Vladimir Putin, who offered him Russian citizenship in November 2016.)
The way the attack on CIR spread was not unlike the way the Russian government helps boost other narratives it finds favorable to its own interests, such as the debunked Seth Rich conspiracy theory that posited Rich, a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, had provided document-dumping site WikiLeaks with thousands of stolen DNC emails.
As with the Rich story, the message attacking CIR was amplified with a network of Kremlin-funded news outlets, social media bots, trolls, and “useful idiots”. State-funded news outlets like Tass and RT slammed Freeman for starring in the video. Through Tass, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov mockingly diagnosed Freeman with “emotional strain”:
Many performing artists easily succumb to becoming victims of emotional strain with no real information about the real state of things They become victims of an emotionally-charged, self-exalted status, an extension of some sort of McCarthyism, I would say. It fades away over time.
RT (formerly Russia Today) published two stories about the video attacking Freeman within an hour of each other:
Like clockwork, social media bot and troll accounts fired up on Twitter, tweeting hashtags like “#StopMorganLie”. Before long, Freeman was a trending topic, according to Hamilton68:
— (((aweisburd))) (@webradius) September 20, 2017
Then the story got picked up by what Russia experts term “useful idiots.” As Weisburd, Clint Watts, and J.M. Berger (the team that created the Hamilton68 dashboard) wrote in a 6 November 2016 explainer, “useful idiots” play a key role in circulating Russian propaganda in influence campaigns known as “active measures”:
Russian active measures use a blend of overt and covert channels to distribute political, financial, social, and calamitous messages (see above). During the Soviet era, “white” active measures were overt information outlets directly attributable to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Today, RT and Sputnik push Kremlin-approved English-language news on television and the Internet. These outlets broadcast a mix of true information (the vast majority of content), manipulated or skewed stories, and strategically chosen falsehoods. RT’s slogan, “Question More,” aptly fits their reporting style — seeding ideas of conspiracy or wrongdoing without actually proving anything.
This “white” content provides ammunition for “gray” measures, which employ less overt outlets controlled by Russia, as well as so-called useful idiots that regurgitate Russian themes and “facts” without necessarily taking direction from Russia or collaborating in a fully informed manner.
During the Cold War, gray measures used semi-covert Communist parties, friendship societies, and non-governmental organizations to engage in party-to-party and people-to-people campaigns. Today, gray measures on social media include conspiracy websites, data dump websites, and seemingly credible news aggregators that amplify disinformation and misinformation.
Conspiracy sites include outlets such as InfoWars and Zero Hedge, along with a host of lesser-known sites that repeat and repackage the same basic content for both right- and left-wing consumers. Sometimes, these intermediaries will post the same stories on sites with opposite political orientations.
Conspiracy site InfoWars did indeed pick up the story. Editor-at-large Paul Joseph Watson wrote a post mirroring the story pushed by Tass, and then produced a three-minute YouTube rant in response, as did fellow conspiracy-pushing web site ZeroHedge.com. Before long, the Kremlin’s attack on Freeman became a prominent story in conventional news outlets the day after the committee launched, just as with the Seth Rich conspiracy.
Speaking to NPR on 20 August 2017, Watts, a Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI agent, explained how Twitter is in this way a hugely effective platform for influencing the public, even if much of the public doesn’t use Twitter, because it is heavily used among journalists as well as propagandists. A topic trending on Twitter has the potential become ubiquitous simply because the news media follows it, and the Russians have learned to capitalize on that, Watts said:
….Twitter is the means by which you can disseminate a message globally the fastest. If you put something out on Twitter, mainstream news, TV producers, global media outlets – they are watching Twitter because they’re all trying to stay ahead of the news cycle. They then take news that comes from these sources. And then they build their stories out on mainstream outlets. So you’ll often hear Americans say, well, I’m not on Twitter, so I’m not being influenced. Actually, that’s not exactly how it works. Twitter is the best way to propagate a message across all social media. It is the best platform that you can use to get global dissemination.