Along with the far left and far right in the U.S., Russian President Vladimir Putin holds the pieties of liberal democracy in contempt. His nation’s attacks on American hearts and minds, detailed in the long-awaited Mueller report, carried with them the spirit of the Joker in the Batman myth — a malevolent court jester motivated by venality, contempt for pretense and a craving for relevance and thrills.
In the special counsel’s report, one member of WikiLeaks — the organization that framed, staged, timed and distributed Russian-hacked material to wreak maximum havoc on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign — described his feckless goals this way:
“We want this repository to become ‘the place’ to search for background on hillary’s plotting at the state department during 2009-2013…. Firstly because its useful and will annoy Hillary, but secondly because we want to be seen to be a resource/player in the US election, because eit [it] may encourage people to send us even more important leaks.”
To a ghastly extent, the social media attempts “to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States” (Mueller’s words) and the more formal Russian military cyberattacks to demonize Hillary Clinton (and by extension liberals and centrists) succeeded. They’ve left our cognitive processes in disarray.
The Mueller report is so rich, and its lessons are infinite. Here’s my first one: Refuse to be drafted into the next infowar, and certainly don’t enlist.
It used to be that Americans didn’t feel remotely threatened by “invaders” at the border; or thwarted by a phantom “deep state”; or constantly lashed by racist, sexist and violent fantasies. These psychic phenomena, and many more, were seeded in our consciousness on Facebook and Twitter and Reddit, then amplified by traditional media so aggressively that we came to believe and even act on them.
Like Iago whispering to Othello, the Kremlin’s operations convinced the prosperous, peaceful United States that it is teetering on the brink of civil war.
Just read the opening — pages 19 to 62 — of Robert S. Mueller III’s work product. This section closely resembles the 9/11 Commission Report, the exhaustive compendium of facts issued in 2004 not to build a criminal case but just to show us what happened on Sept. 11, 2001.
Likewise, we need to know what happened in 2016, when armies of hostile foreign actors decided to have their way with us. We have to get it straight if for no other reason than that it will clear our heads enough to grasp what follows in the report.
Beginning in 2014, the Internet Research Agency, a network of Russian trolls and other “information war” foot soldiers, went to work online “to undermine the U.S. electoral system” essentially by making trouble.
The will to make trouble is a constant in the report. According to White House Counsel Don McGahn, President Trump wanted his henchmen to “do crazy stuff” (he used an obscenity) to shut down the Mueller investigation. The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, intended to create a dramatic rift between Clinton and Bernie Sanders just to keep things “interesting.”
In early 2016, the IRA had moved on to disparaging Clinton nearly full time, while lavishing fond attention on Sanders and praising Trump as a mashup of Superman, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Jesus. It also staged rallies for candidate Trump, in sync with local activists.
People who should have known better picked up the disinfo campaign. And this wasn’t just Trumpites like Kellyanne Conway and Michael Flynn. U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, for example, amplified one of the IRA’s most prolific “personas” — accounts manned by intelligence professionals — on Twitter. The report adds that “U.S. media outlets also quoted tweets from IRA-controlled accounts and attributed them to the reactions of real U.S. persons,” citing a 2018 study from the Columbia Journalism Review.
Russian military intelligence — the GRU — was more overtly criminal. In short, its operatives hacked both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee, and then made sure to release only the material that would hurt Clinton and the Democrats. Again, some media outlets recycled what was gouged out of the servers.
Assange middle-managed the hand-off from the GRU to various illustrious newspapers. Readers no less than reporters were enthralled by the stolen materials and the fraternity-style panty raid on Clinton. Amy Chozick, who covered the Clinton campaign for the New York Times, later described herself as “an unwitting agent of Russian intelligence.”
We all were.
What makes the attacks on the U.S. so repellent and ultimately tragic is that so few saw them for what they were — viruses, memes and ear worms unleashed in social and traditional media where Americans spend an average of 11 hours every day, and where we are supremely vulnerable to novelty and arousal: #whitegenocide, #invasion, #hillaryforprison — a lot of us spread this stuff, if only to complain about it.
The hacker’s work is to create, prevent and capitalize on disruptions on the internet. Amoral in themselves, disruptions are pure opportunity: to confound enemies, to make money, to achieve renown. Even the good guys, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops emerging technologies for use the military, states as a goal “preventing — and creating — strategic surprise.”
The Mueller report is so rich, and its lessons are infinite. Here’s my first one: Refuse to be drafted into the next infowar, and certainly don’t enlist. If something you’re being fed hurts the brain, don’t believe it. It could be a reference to “the Satan” that’s not quite idiomatic. Or a photo of mostly naked girls demonstrating in favor of Harvey Weinstein.
Mueller is careful — to a fault — to go only where the evidence leads. Trust him on this: If it seems un-American, it is.