This week we are looking at fake news from the perspective of national security. (Spoiler alert: it makes us all less safe in several ways). We spoke with Lt. Col. Travis Trammell and Stanford Professor Elisabeth Paté-Cornell about the ways it destabilizes our democracy, and how our enemies use it against us.
When we think of foreign interference, Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election is top of mind.
The internet vaulted Russia’s disinformation campaigns to spectacular heights, but they’re using a playbook nearly 100 years old. In 1923, the GPU (née KGB) founded an office dedicated to “dezinformatsiya.” The Soviets used this office, through later iterations run by the KGB, to confound and confuse adversaries both at home and abroad. The infamous Show Trials of the 1930s exemplified the use of disinformation within the USSR. During the Cold War, Russian lies became a deadly staple of their counter-intelligence regimen. In a particularly odious example, the KGB created a rumor purporting AIDS and HIV as manmade ailments created by the wicked USA (eerily like a certain right-wing confabulation involving a lab in Wuhan and COVID). Operation Infektion spread at viral speed and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of patients due to confusion, denial, and mistreatment.
After so much practice, Russia is an undisputed master of the fake news game. While some of their fabricated stories slander opponents, others have a more manageable goal: spreading chaos.
The “divide and conquer” strategy is as old as recorded history. By the time Caesar used divida et imperia to subjugate the massive landmass of Gaul, it was a well-established doctrine, with more than 1,200 years of history behind it. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, and many other great military strategists emphasized the importance of separating, weakening, and confusing the enemy before a single spear was thrown, arrow loosed, or shot fired. Sow chaos, reap the reward.
Russia has its own chaos strategy, dubbed The Gerasimov Doctrine after General Valery Gerasimov. Gerasimov heads Russia’s general staff, broadly overseeing war-making efforts—which their fake news pushes undoubtedly are.
“If you can persuade a person,” he said in a 2014 interview, “you don’t need to kill him.” The chaos doctrine lets Russia shed the hated “regional power” moniker, slowly weakening superpowers and leveling the playing field.
Much of the information Russia disseminates are not direct Kremlin talking points. Instead, they play both sides against each other, as the world saw in Ukraine in 2014. During the initial Mayden riots, Russia backed both sides—seemingly against their interests—to create strife and erode unification in Ukraine. They ultimately seized Crimea using a barrage of chaotic misinformation, sending in unidentified soldiers, and denying involvement.
The chaos strategy extends to the US. Many Russian-originated stories don’t obviously help Russia, but they do divide us. Remember when Russia created fake Black Lives Matter groups? It wasn’t out of a surplus of sympathy for the plight of African Americans, but a way to further inflame racial tensions in an election year.
The American political system is an easy target for the Kremlin. Over the last two decades, we’ve greatly helped Russia by polarizing ourselves. It takes minimal effort for Russian agents to start a fight between Democrats and Republicans because we’re regularly doing it ourselves. With every new battle, dysfunctional episode, and unfulfilled promise, our standing in the world diminishes. Russia’s prowess doesn’t increase when America falters, but they close the power gap nonetheless.
Chaos strategies like Russia’s are difficult to predict and evade because it’s hard to know what the next move will be. As we enter an election year, partisan tensions run high, and Russia—now with added confidence thanks to the 2016 cycle—will surely be there.
It is scary to think about, but Lt. Col. Trammell left us with a glimmer of hope. “I’m hopeful of the ability and the ingenuity of the global community to be able to look for ways to address this scourge and to limit its impact,” he told Mila. “Their considerable efforts are going to lead to more effective countermeasures, more effective methods to provide better information to the masses.”
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Linder, Doug. “The Moscow Purge Trials (1936-38):” The Moscow Purge Trials (1936-38): Bibliography and Selected Links, law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/moscowpurge/moscowlinks.html.
MacFarquhar, Neil. “A Powerful Russian Weapon: The Spread of False Stories.” The New York Times, The New York Times, www.nytimes.com./2016/08/29/world/europe/russia-sweden-disinformation.html.
Mckew, Molly K., et al. “The Gerasimov Doctrine.” POLITICO Magazine, www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/09/05/gerasimov-doctrine-russia-foreign-policy-215538.
“Obama Brands Russia ‘a Regional Power’.” YouTube, Euronews, www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTml7gNTimQ.
“Operation InfeKtion: How Russia Perfected the Art of War | NYT Opinion.” YouTube, YouTube/ NYT, www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR_6dibpDfo&feature=emb_title.
“Political Polarization.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 21 May 2020, www.pewresearch.org/topics/political-polarization/.
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Taylor, Adam. “Before ‘Fake News,’ There Was Soviet ‘Disinformation’.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 26 Nov. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/11/26/before-fake-news-there-was-soviet-disinformation/.