Putin’s Internet Propaganda War Is Much Bigger And Weirder Than You Think, Now Extending Into The States

We’ve been writing lately about how Putin and Russia have shifted their internet propaganda forces into overdrive, employing multiple factories operated by a company named Internet Research, filling the internet with Putin-friendly drivel twenty-four-hours a day. The insight into these efforts has become more and more interesting as whistleblowers have started exposing (and most recently suing over) them the last six months. Contrary to similar efforts in other countries (U.S. included), there’s absolutely no subtlety on display here, and the scale is unlike anything the internet has ever seen.

Interestingly, many of the comments to my last piece made some really compelling points regarding what Putin is up to. Here’s a small smattering:

  • “Karl Bode, author of this very article, has most likely unwittingly fallen for an ukrainian-made honey-pot propaganda trap.”
  • “I cant help see this article as another stone in the western propaganda campaign against Putin the last few months, and not really about social media propaganda.”
  • “The story of that Russian propaganda factory that caught Karl Bode’s attention (assuming the story is even true and is not itself a counter-propaganda gig similar to ‘WMD’) seems very amateurish in comparison to the depth and sophistication to the US military’s sock-puppetry programs.”
  • “By writing this horse shit, all Techdirt has done is shown that it’s writers are easily manipulated. I expect more pro-US, anti-Russia propaganda from them in the future.”
  • Anybody who knows me remotely would find accusations that I’m “pro-US” pretty damn funny given how I’ve spent most of my career criticizing US government policies. Are these comments ingenious satire? Russian propagandists? Domestic garden-variety home-grown tin-foil hatters? The benefit of propaganda is you just can’t tell. But science pretty consistently shows that comments can pretty easily impact discourse, even if what’s being posted is relatively unhinged from reality. So to be clear, it’s true: I’m a total lackey for western imperialists; a pawn of the NSA and CIA, and as most people know, I make a killing freelancing as a propagandist for AT&T corporation.

    Moving on. While there’s no doubt the United States has employed similar tactics for years (profitable wars and shitty foreign policy don’t sell themselves, you know), that doesn’t make the sheer scale of Putin’s troll army any less impressive…or real.

    The New York Times Magazine has an outstanding exploration of Putin’s propaganda efforts and Russia’s Internet Research Agency, connecting a series of incredibly well-constructed hoaxes using fake YouTube videos, fake Wikipedia entries, and thousands of Twitter accounts — many of which were designed to pollute the global discourse pool here in the States. Author Adrian Chen headed to St. Petersburg to track down and talk to whistleblower Lyudmila Savchuk, who goes into greater detail than ever before about the program. Again, there’s propaganda, and then there’s what Putin’s up to, which is a factory-grade internet assault on reality injected with steroids and caffeine:

    “As Savchuk and other former employees describe it, the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling. Management was obsessed with statistics — page views, number of posts, a blog’s place on LiveJournal’s traffic charts — and team leaders compelled hard work through a system of bonuses and fines. “It was a very strong corporate feeling,” Savchuk says. Her schedule gave her two 12-hour days in a row, followed by two days off. Over those two shifts she had to meet a quota of five political posts, 10 nonpolitical posts and 150 to 200 comments on other workers’ posts. The grueling schedule wore her down. She began to feel queasy, she said, posting vitriol about opposition leaders of whom she had no actual opinion, or writing nasty words about Ukrainians when some of her closest acquaintances, including her own ex-husband, were Ukrainian.”

    These efforts have become so massive, local journalists claim they have, at least for now, managed to subvert the historical anti-authoritarian and free speech benefits of the internet:

    “All of this has contributed to a dawning sense, among the Russian journalists and activists I spoke with, that the Internet is no longer a natural medium for political opposition. “The myth that the Internet is controlled by the opposition is very, very old,” says Leonid Volkov, a liberal politician and campaign manager to Alexei Navalny. “It’s not true since at least three years.” Part of this is simple demographics: The Internet audience has expanded from its early adopters, who were more likely to be well-educated liberal intelligentsia, to the whole of Russia, which overwhelmingly supports Putin. Also, by working every day to spread Kremlin propaganda, the paid trolls have made it impossible for the normal Internet user to separate truth from fiction.”

    The piece repeats previous claims that Russia’s industrial-grade propaganda apparatus has fixed its gaze upon the United States, and while so far some of these efforts on places like Facebook are so ham-fisted as to be comical, some of them are absolutely astounding in their scope and architecture. Like the Facebook group of Russian trolls that encourage followers to visit an art exhibit named “Material Evidence” hosted in Chelsea, New York City. The effort, funded by anonymous overseas donors, claims to show the “other side” of the Ukranian conflict and Syrian civil war not shown by Western media:

    “Then there were the pictures from the Ukrainian revolution, which focused almost exclusively on the Right Sector, a small group of violent, right-wing, anti-Russian protesters with a fondness for black balaclavas. Russian authorities have seized upon Right Sector to paint the entire revolution, backed by a huge swath of Ukrainian society, as orchestrated by neo-fascist thugs. The show’s decision to juxtapose the rebellions in Syria and Ukraine was never clearly explained, perhaps because the only connection possible was that both targeted leaders supported by Russia. On the floor in front of many of the photos sat the actual items that appeared in them, displayed under glass cases. How, exactly, did organizers procure the very same battered motorcycle helmet that a Ukrainian protester wore in a photo while brawling with riot police? Who had fronted the money to purchase a mangled white van, supposedly used by Syrian rebels in a botched suicide bombing, and transport it to New York City?

    Let that sink in for a second. Armies of fake U.S. Facebook accounts, sending followers to an entirely fake art exhibit in New York, promoted by an army of fake and hijacked Twitter accounts — all of it tied to Russia’s Internet Research Agency. At one point in his documentation efforts, Chen makes contact and meets up with a supposed Internet Research Agency employee and her brother, only to later discover the entire meeting is a staged photo op, later used by “news organizations” tied to Internet Research to discredit Chen as a neo nazi supporter. That story soon ballooned into a series of other Russian news stories accusing Chen of being BFFs with the NSA, CIA, and neo nazis, accompanied with snazzy videos to “prove” it.

    So again, yes, most countries engage in propaganda. That’s not really being disputed. Most Americans at this point are at least marginally aware of the propaganda used to sell recent wars conducted by the United States — and the complicit behavior of the media in these efforts to this day stinks up the hallowed halls of most “respected” American news outlets (the same outlets that love to lecture bloggers on what news really is). But what Putin is up to is a propaganda war against the entire internet, and it makes dystopian visions by the likes of Orwell and Terry Gilliam look like Hardy Boy mysteries. Of course none of that matters because I’m clearly a Western imperialist puppy murderer, and this article was funded by the CIA, as commenters below will be sure to illustrate.

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