Special counsel Robert Mueller has charged 13 Russian individuals and three organizations for using social media “to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.” The Russian effort denigrated Hillary Clinton, and sought to inflame divisive social issues through fake accounts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as staging political rallies. While the use of propaganda to influence a domestic audience for any purpose is troubling, the indictment offers nothing on the e-mail hacking of the DNC and John Podesta, nor on the suspicions of Kremlin collusion that have engulfed Donald Trump’s presidency. Yet, far from quelling the inflamed rhetoric surrounding Russian meddling for more than a year, one of the few areas of divergence across the political spectrum comes only in regard to which historical calamity to compare it to.
Neoconservative pundit Max Boot decries “the second-worst foreign attack on America,” after 9/11, one that “may be even more corrosive.” According to liberal Jonathan Alter, the Russians have launched “an attack that—but for the loss of life—is as bad as Pearl Harbor.” Democratic Representative Jerrold Nadler concurs, explaining to MSNBC: “They didn’t kill anyone but they’re destroying our democratic process.… Not in the amount of violence, but in the seriousness, it is very much on par.”
Dispassionate, veteran journalists echo the seriousness. “It seems increasingly likely,” writes The Intercept’s James Risen, “that the Russians have pulled off the most consequential covert action operation since Germany put Lenin on a train back to Petrograd in 1917.” “Russia is engaged in a virtual war against the United States through 21st-century tools of disinformation and propaganda,” concludes New York Times chief White House correspondent Peter Baker.
While Mueller’s indictment has been received as “ stunning,” a “ bombshell,” and a “ blockbuster,” the Russian outlet RBC already revealed much of its details last year. Employees of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll farm operated out of St. Petersburg, were allegedly instructed to foment “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.” When it came to the 2016 election, the IRA initially “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” After the primaries, their efforts allegedly shifted to “expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.”
The indictment discloses that the IRA’s activities were a part of “Project Lakhta,” a larger Russian interference operation with a monthly budget of $1.25 million. Multiple outlets that have reported this seemingly impressive figure have failed to note that it was for the project’s overall operations, which sought to reach “domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.”
In terms of what the indictment spells out about US spending, prosecutors only note “thousands” in monthly expenditures on “advertisements on online social media sites to promote ORGANIZATION-controlled social media groups,” starting in 2015. The only public figure on Facebook ad spending by Russian linked-accounts is of $100,000 in ads, more than half of that money spent after the 2016 election. As I wrote for T he Nation earlier this month:
[The ads] were mostly related not to the election but to social issues and were often juvenile and written in broken English. Those that were “geographically located” came mostly during the primaries. The ads that ran in battleground states were, as one study noted, “microscopic”: Fewer than a dozen ran in Michigan and Wisconsin combined, and the majority were seen fewer than 1,000 times. Purported Russian ad spending amounted to $1,979 in Wisconsin—all but $54 of that during the primary—$823 in Michigan, and $300 in Pennsylvania.
The $46,000 in Russian-linked Facebook ads before the election amounts to about five-1,000ths-of 1 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. And beyond the ads, Facebook has also previously reported to Congress that News Feed posts generated by suspected Russian accounts represented “a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook…about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004 percent) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”
The indictment also cites the IRA’s previously reported efforts to organize political rallies that would inflame social divisions. One apparently aimed at catering to Islamophobes in Florida was called “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims!” in July 2016. “It’s unclear if anyone attended,” The Daily Beast later noted. Another effort dubbed “Florida Goes Trump,” the following month apparently had similar results: “No people showed up to at least one of the proposed rallies,” The Washington Post reported, “and online photos of some of the other events reveal ragtag groups with Trump signs staking out patches of grass or traffic medians.” One online video features a crowd of eight people.
Despite these underwhelming results, Democratic staffers have even resorted to diminishing their own colleagues in the service of uplifting their shrewd troll-farm counterparts. “I hate to say it,” said Clinton campaign spokesperson Brian Fallon, “but it seems like the creative instincts and the sophistication exceeds a lot of the US political operatives who do this for a living.” Fallon may be on to something—while the Russians spent at least around $1,000 on Facebook ads in Michigan and Wisconsin in the months before Election Day, Clinton’s campaign was notoriously MIA there.
The troll farm defendants include Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former hot-dog vendor turned wealthy entrepreneur who appears to be close to Vladimir Putin and has won lucrative Russian government contracts. But nothing in the indictment directly ties the scheme to the Kremlin. The troll farm’s efforts “were so easy to trace back to the Internet Research Agency,” The New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar writes, “that it probably underscores that the intelligence services were not involved in running the organization.” One item in the indictment suggests commercial motives played a considerable, if not dominant, role: Popular fake accounts like “Being Patriotic, Defend the 2nd, and Blacktivist,” were used to share promotional content from “certain US merchants and U.S. social-media sites,” for a fee of “between 25 and 50 U.S. dollars per post.”
That is perhaps why Andrey Zakharov, one of the reporters who wrote the RBC story that detailed the IRA’s efforts, now describes the factory’s US-focused operations as simply “a very successful social media marketing campaign,” as does Adrian Chen, who profiled the IRA in 2015. Whatever it was, it was not war. And if the Russian government was somehow involved, then it would have many state counterparts around the world, among them the United States, whose influence operations include at least tens of millions spent directly on Russia. A recent Carnegie Mellon study found that the United States has interfered in 81 elections since the Second World War. “[The] findings underscore how routine election meddling by the United States—sometimes covert and sometimes quite open—has been,” Scott Shane of The New York Times observes.
There is more to reevaluate. “At the heart of the Russian fraud,” writes The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos, “is an essential, embarrassing insight into American life: large numbers of Americans are ill-equipped to assess the credibility of the things they read.” Osnos is referring to the average voters presumably swayed by Russian troll farm employees. But as the journalist Max Blumenthal argues, the insight very much applies to the “well-educated coastal liberals” who have made Russiagate their top political issue over the past year. In the service of a narrative to explain—and, many hope, reverse—Donald Trump’s improbable victory, partisan thought leaders and credulous journalists have flooded the media landscape with a barrage of innuendo, supposition, and overblown claims.
And the rush to connect everything to Russiagate apparently extends to national tragedies beyond 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. The school massacre in Parkland, Florida, was invoked to decry unproven claims of a Kremlin-NRA tie and the influence of alleged Russian social-media bots. But the only research connecting the bots to Russia comes from Hamilton 68, a project of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, whose team is a who’s who of hawkish neocons and Democrats. Hamilton 68 has refused to make transparent the names of the accounts it deems Russian bots.
It has also become increasingly clear that those who challenge the bipartisan political consensus risk being a target. Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein were subjected to new scrutiny after the indictment claimed that Russian trolls promoted their campaigns. The most popular known Russian-connected content related to Bernie Sanders amounts to the cartoon of a shirtless “Buff Bernie” from “LGBT United” (848 impressions, 54 clicks, costing the Russians $1.92) and another Facebook ad featuring Bernie Sanders criticizing the Clinton Foundation (1,938 impressions, 222 clicks, at a more expensive price tag of $8.56). For Stein, the evidence adduced in the indictment is an Instagram post from the fake account Blaktivist that said: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.” Stein’s minor role in the Russian troll farm activities is underscored by new data showing that she received far less Twitter “boosts” from the IRA’s trolls than an MSNBC host who has tied her to Russian influence.
The indictment prompted former Obama adviser David Axelrod to suggest that Russian support for Stein may have cost Hillary Clinton victories in Wisconsin and Michigan. Putting aside that Clinton would still have lost the Electoral College even with those two states, the comment reveals another insight into American political life: the entitled assumption among top Democrats that anyone who would have voted for a third-party candidate would have otherwise voted for Clinton, and the tacit condescension it takes to believe that juvenile social-media posts could sway them either way. It would not be surprising if many voters who shunned Democrats in 2016 did so in response to a perceived elitism of this variety.
For all of the worry about Russian meddling, the reaction to its latest-known component serves as a reminder that the greater threats to democratic norms are perhaps much closer to home.