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.”