VLAD’S VENGEANCE: Part of an occasional series
Debate rages in Washington over the true scale and impact of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but intelligence sources say Moscow’s hacking, fake news and social media manipulation ignited a global trend that now threatens some of the world’s most fragile democracies.
“It’s as if David slung a rock into Goliath’s eye and Goliath actually stumbled,” said one source, who added that “if America could be shaken by such a campaign, imagine what would happen if it were repeated in a place like Kenya.”
What the Russians did, according to a leading international political consultant, was create a blueprint for 21st-century subversion that is now being mimicked by spin doctors and elusive digital data firms to sow chaos in elections wherever they can.
It’s a troubling aspect of how the rest of the world absorbed accusations — made roughly a year ago by President Obama’s intelligence chiefs — that Russia meddled in the U.S. election to give Donald Trump an edge over Hillary Clinton.
In the global perception wars, people see different things, and reactions have varied widely among America’s adversaries, allies and admirers.
Interviews The Washington Times has conducted with more than three dozen current and former lawmakers, diplomats and U.S. and international intelligence officials show a solid consensus that Kremlin operatives cared less about whether Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton came out victorious.
To the contrary, they say, Moscow’s goal was more simple: Wreak havoc on the American political and media landscape in a way that would make U.S. citizens doubt the integrity of the Democratic process.
If the past year of unprecedented public American anger over the issue of Russian interference is any indication, it would seem the Kremlin has achieved its goal.
Some international observers told The Times that the divisions emanating from the American political and media sphere appear — from afar — like nothing else since the 1960s.
With Washington’s most combative president in decades battling five ongoing federal and congressional investigations into suspected Russian meddling, the fissure feels like it widens a bit more each day.
“Russia must be laughing up their sleeves watching as the U.S. tears itself apart over a Democrat EXCUSE for losing the election,” Mr. Trump tweeted over the summer.
As for America’s allies and admirers, many who had grown accustomed to America’s role as a beacon of freedom and clarity in the post-World War II era, acknowledge they are perplexed. Some have described the events and reports about the election as “beyond shocking.”
“America has been a model of law and order and Democratic principles,” Moldova’s former U.N. Ambassador Vlad Lupan told The Times. Pro-Western and also a target of Moscow’s disinformation campaigns, Mr. Lupan said many former Soviet states reacted with disbelief that Washington could have fallen victim to Russian manipulation.
“We hope this is just a hiccup and the U.S. can clean up and correct whatever might have gone on,” he said.
Some of America’s adversaries, meanwhile, say the appearance that Russia somehow influenced the election fed perceptions that the United States is a nation in decline.
“I don’t know if this particular narrative made Russia look strong, but it certainly made the U.S. look weak,” University of Tehran professor Seyed Mohammad Marandi told The Times.
Congressional investigations into Russian meddling have highlighted the central role the Kremlin’s social media manipulation campaign played in tarnishing the election.
Like digital graffiti, Moscow-backed trolls pumped disinformation, fake news and Russian propaganda across the U.S. internet — a media space that, unlike American radio or TV, had virtually no government oversight.
During the year since the election, the trend of spreading fake news via social media has exploded internationally, particularly in Africa.
The most prominent example was in Kenya, where social media caught fire after the August presidential election with reports of widespread violence in the streets.
The catch was that the reports were bogus.
The disinformation grew so divisive and dangerous that Kenya Red Cross Society Secretary General Abbas Gullett was forced to launch a rapid-reaction public safety campaign to debunk fake graphic footage spreading on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp that falsely hyped election disputes in certain slums and villages as bloody mayhem.
“It’s become the name of the game when it comes to trying to influence a Democratic election, especially in countries where there’s limited outside interest or oversight,” said the international political consultant, who spoke with The Times.
The consultant, who has advised foreign governments and candidates in more than 40 countries, asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely on the matter.
A former high-level CIA source confirmed the trend, assuring that the agency has been tracking the whole phenomenon of social media manipulation. “What we’re talking about here is not some big outside power doing the manipulation,” said the source, “but local power players hiring outside firms to come in and rip through the social media landscape with fake news.”
While a range of international companies are involved, global headlines were made in September when a local fake news scheme in South Africa backfired, causing one of the world’s most powerful public relations firms to file for bankruptcy.
Bell Pottinger, co-founded by Timothy Bell, a former public relations adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, saw clients depart overnight after running what the South African press called a “massive racist fake news propaganda war” complete with an army of fake Twitter accounts and a massive document leak.
European fears and realities
In Europe, some observers fear a kind of “digital curtain” has descended across the Continent.
Juergen Hardt, a leading member of German parliament, told The Times that Russia’s actions against the United States were sobering.
But Mr. Hardt, the foreign policy spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union party, said Berlin was not surprised because Moscow had engaged — during the summer of 2015 — in subversion against Germany with a hacking that shuttered the nation’s parliament for a week.
“When I first saw the allegations about Russian hacking of the DNC computer network, I thought it seemed like a logical progression that Moscow would also be trying to influence the U.S. political landscape,” he told The Times. “If they started to attack the German Bundestag, they might be able and willing to attack the U.S. digital world.”
In Britain, Parliament is investigating reports that Moscow attempted to manipulate social media to influence the United Kingdom’s 2016 “Brexit” referendum to leave the European Union.
A highly touted meeting last week between British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov devolved into a public spectacle when the two men suddenly lashed out at each other before a crowd of journalists and diplomats in Moscow.
Mr. Johnson issued a direct warning to Russia to stop cyberinterference in U.S., German, Danish and French elections.
Mr. Lavrov repeated Moscow’s denial of any such shenanigans. “I think you have made all this up in your Western community, and unfortunately right now you are hostage to this subject,” he said. “It is very difficult for you to climb down from the fence you have climbed.”
Machiavellian geopolitics — and China
In Iran, where the news media operate in a repressive environment and anti-Americanism is never far beneath the surface, Mr. Marandi said the topic is not widely discussed, but when it does come up, “there is a general skepticism regarding the accusations of Russian meddling.”
“Trump is quite unpopular over here,” the Tehran-based political scientist told The Times. “But it seems to me that most believe U.S. intelligence services are deeply politicized and that the accusations are mostly untrue even though the Russians preferred Trump over Clinton.”
As for the world’s largest nation, China, sentiments about Russian meddling have been less about social media manipulation than pure Machiavellian geopolitics.
Beijing has in place what technologists call a “Great Firewall” around internet access for Chinese citizens. The virtual wall completely blocks Facebook, Twitter and thousands of other websites.
But bits of news about America still find their way inside.
Mr. Trump, for instance, is known to have several online Chinese fan clubs, which local media say stem from what many see as his honesty and flamboyant but pragmatic businessman’s demeanor — an apparently refreshing change from Beijing’s straight-faced leaders.
But the official Chinese government line toward reports of Russian meddling in U.S. elections have shed a different kind of light on Beijing’s posture toward both Washington and Moscow.
In January, three days after the U.S. intelligence allegations were leveled against Russia, Chinese state media weighed in with an article asserting that Americans must “have either a short memory or are just plan ignorant” of their nation’s long history of meddling in the domestic affairs of foreign governments.
The article, by Chen Weihua, China Daily’s chief Washington correspondent, also detailed a recent Carnegie-Mellon Institute for Politics and Strategy study that documented U.S. or Soviet Union/Russian intervention in roughly “one in every nine of the 937 competitive national-level executive elections” from 1946 to 2000.
The study, by Milwaukee native Dov Levin, found that America had meddled about twice as much as Russia, and even in the elections of its closest allies Italy, Japan and Israel.
“The fact that the U.S. has been interfering in the national elections of other countries has been no secret to people the world over,” Mr. Chen wrote.
He reminded China Daily readers that President Clinton endorsed a $10.2 billion loan in 1996 from the International Monetary Fund to Russia, a critical factor in the re-election that year of Boris Yeltsin.