Masha Gessen: Did a Russian Troll Farm’s Inflammatory Posts Really Sway the 2016 Election for Trump?

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The Justice Department recently indicted 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The indicted are accused of orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the U.S. election system. The indictment claims the Russians spread negative information online about Hillary Clinton and supportive information about Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders—but some are warning against overstating what Russia accomplished. For more, we speak with award-winning Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her recent piece for The New Yorker is titled “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the Justice Department’s recent indictment of 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The indicted are accused of orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the U.S. election system. The indictment claims the Russians spread negative information online about Hillary Clinton and supportive information about Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders.

After the indictments on Friday, some analysts compared the Russian interference to Japan’s 1941 attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. But others have warned not to overstate what Russia accomplished.

On Thursday, I sat down with the prize-winning Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her recent book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, it won the National Book Award in 2017. Gessen recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine headlined “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.” I began there, asking her about these indictments.

MASHA GESSEN: So, you know, for somebody who actually has read the indictment in its entirety, and, actually, the Russian reporting that is almost entirely repeated in the indictment, it’s really hard to square that with the way that it’s been portrayed as, you know, a sophisticated, bold effort. I think H.R. McMaster is correct in saying, yes, there’s “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian meddling, but to call it bold, to call it sophisticated and to imply that we now know that it actually had an influence on the outcome of the election is absurd. It was not bold. It was not sophisticated. And it—we don’t know, and probably never will know, whether it had any impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the deputy attorney general, which surprised many, that he was the person who spoke on Friday, Rod Rosenstein, the man very much under attack by President Trump, who said there’s no evidence—this is Rosenstein—said there’s no evidence that the alleged interference influenced the outcome of the election.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States’ political system, including the 2016 presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called 'information warfare' against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Masha Gessen, talk about what you found in reading the indictment, looking at how people are responding in Russia and here.

MASHA GESSEN: So, I am really fascinated with what it tells us about our imagination about the Russian imagination. So, Russia imagines America and the American political system as like this unassailable monolith that they are throwing stuff at just to try to make a dent, whereas the United States is starting increasingly to imagine Russia as all-powerful, as incredibly sophisticated, as capable of, you know, sending out some really absurd tweets, in sub-literate English, and somehow changing the outcome of the election. And that projects such a belief in the fragility of the system and the basic instability of it and in the gullibility of voters who read something that’s not even comprehensible English and suddenly change their vote. I mean, the working theory of the investigation—right?—is that Russians influenced the election by influencing American public opinion. And so, we’re asked to believe that a significant impact on American public opinion could be produced by, you know, the Bernie the Superman coloring book tweet.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

MASHA GESSEN: Well, among the Facebook ads—you know, a lot of them were truly absurd. They’re like caricatures of American political propaganda. For example, there was a coloring book of a sort of buff Bernie, with tweets going out saying that it was suitable for all ages, and that was supposed to sort of advance the Sanders candidacy to detract from Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. There was the Satan arm-wrestling Jesus ad, where Satan is supposed to be Hillary and Jesus is supposed to be Trump, and you have to vote the right way. And we’re asked to believe that that had a measurable impact on a billion-dollar campaign?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you write about all the different reactions, from the vice president of Facebook, Rob Goldman, what he said, what Trump said. And take it from there.

MASHA GESSEN: Well, so, Rob Goldman wrote that he has seen all the Russian ads and tweets, which—ads and posts, which, of course, we haven’t, right? We know that Facebook turned them over to the congressional investigators, but we’ve only seen a small selection of them. And I suspect that what we’ve seen are the ones that make any sense at all, right? Because there’s also just this giant amount of internet static that’s produced. And so, Rob Goldman posted—tweeted, “I’ve seen all the Russian ads. Their goal was not to elect Trump,” I think—am I quoting this correctly?

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to what the Facebook vice president, Rob Goldman, said, as he took to Twitter, writing, “Very excited to see the Mueller indictment today. We shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people to help the public understand how the Russians abused our system. Still, there are key facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.” And then, in a subsequent tweet, Goldman wrote, “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was 'NOT' the main goal.” President Trump quoted the latter statement in a tweet the next day.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, swaying the election was not the main goal. And I think—

AMY GOODMAN: Just creating—

MASHA GESSEN: I mean, this is conjecture on my part, but also based on what I know about what the Russian trolls themselves are saying, because they have been interviewed at this point by Russian journalists. And, you know, their goal was to create a mess, to screw with us, right? And I think that what Rob Goldman is probably looking at is a huge mess of incomprehensible sort of messaging. Incomprehensible messaging is a very important part of Russian propaganda. I mean, it’s not—you know, this is not an imaginary phenomenon, right? Creating a cacophony—

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not unimaginable here, either.

MASHA GESSEN: But creating a cacophony, creating confusion, creating the sense that nothing means anything anymore is definitely important, right? But that is different from saying that their goal was to sway the outcome of the election and that we can say with any amount of certainty that that worked and that’s how we got Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s also served another purpose, for example, when it comes to these large megacorporations, like Facebook and Twitter. They’ve been hauled before Congress, before the British Parliament, and they’re saying, “How could you have allowed this to appear?” And in the end, they’re being pressured, basically, these corporations, to censor what is out there.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that the agenda of holding Facebook accountable publicly is such a bad agenda. You know, I think that a conversation about what Facebook is—is it a public resource, even though it’s a privately owned corporation? Is it a media company? It is certainly not just a platform, as Facebook has claimed repeatedly. I think that is a really important question. I just think it’s been asked in the wrong way, right? It’s been asked—you know, when we saw Senator Al Franken badgering the Facebook lawyer and screaming, you know, “They were Russians! You know, how could you not see that these ads were bought for rubles?” Well, why are we starting at a place where we assume that selling advertising for rubles, that there’s something necessarily sinister and horrible about it? Right? And that is—I don’t think that moves forward a conversation about how something that has de facto become a public resource, but is privately owned, functions in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen wrote a piece in The New Yorker magazine, “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.” We will come back to this discussion in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: “Sabre Dance” by Yuri Ahronovitch and the London Symphony Orchestra. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen about the recent indictment of 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 U.S. election. One of the Russians indicted last week by the Justice Department, Russian billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, who owns the Internet Research Agency, the Russian troll farm that was involved in the Russian election meddling, his nickname is reportedly “Putin’s cook.” According to The Washington Post, he’s also believed to control the Russian mercenaries who attacked U.S. troops and their allies in Syria this month. I asked Masha Gessen to talk more about him.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, the Russian state and the Russian government is a mafia state. And so, the easiest way to think about it is it’s a clan—right?—with a patriarch in the middle. Who nominally owns what doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, right? Because—so, they created this troll farm. Someone had to—it had to be a private company. Someone had to nominally own it. There’s very little doubt that it’s getting funding from the Kremlin, right? So, it’s inside the clan, right? Whether Prigozhin, as a person, is actually particularly important in this game, you know, none of us can say, right? But we do know a fair amount about how that company functioned, right? Again, there’s been like great Russian reporting on what they were doing. And a lot of that reporting is regurgitated in the indictment, with, apparently, some inaccuracies introduced in translation.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain that, because it’s an important point. You’re basically saying they’re taking these Russian reports.

MASHA GESSEN: I didn’t find anything in the indictment that wasn’t in the Russian report. The Russian investigative report that was published by RBC in October was terrific. Actually, they published two reports, one right after another. They really sort of got into this company. The interviewed people who told them, you know, what they were told to do. They were very explicitly told to mess with the election, right? They were not told to support one candidate over another. They were told to create a lot of static. They were told to mirror a lot of things. They talked—these so-called trolls talked about organizing offline demonstrations, right? So those stories about how they would find real U.S. persons, actual U.S. persons, and sometimes offer them money, sometimes offer them other incentives, to organize a demonstration here or there, right? But again, you know, we’re looking at a cacophony, cacophonous messaging. And, of course, my favorite part is that after the election, they went on and immediately organize an anti-Trump rally and a pro-Trump rally. And that sort of sums up the way they worked.

AMY GOODMAN: And the people themselves—I mean, you had these almost laughable stories of Russians getting visas. Some were denied, and some weren’t. And they came to the United States. And, of course, this was during Obama’s time.

MASHA GESSEN: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: And they traveled the country. And talk about the purple state strategy and learning the lingo.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, yeah, so they traveled about, collecting intelligence, and the indictment quotes that they got this incredibly important information, which is focused on the purple states, like Colorado, Nevada and—I can’t remember what the third one on the list was. But it was just something that you would get from any—the simplest analysis of American elections. You don’t actually have to travel to the United States and talk to actual U.S. persons to get this kind of insight. I mean, to be fair, most intelligence is like that. Most intelligence is obvious to somebody who knows anything about the topic, right? It’s a lot of—especially Russian intelligence. It’s a lot of stuff that’s based on open sources, lots of obvious stuff. It’s a lot of static and a lot of people just trying to report that they learned something when they actually learned nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, if this was American, it would be marked “highly classified.”

MASHA GESSEN: Right, exactly.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, perhaps, Jared Kushner wouldn’t be able to read it, if he loses his security clearance. But let me ask you about what Charles Blow said in The New York Times. In a “piece”:”Attacking the Woke Black Vote,” headlined “Attacking the 'Woke' Black Vote,” Charles Blow writes, “One thing that’s clear to me following the special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russians and three companies for interfering with our election is that the black vote was specifically under attack, from sources foreign and domestic. And this attack appeared to be particularly focused on young black activist-minded voters passionate about social justice: The 'Woke' Vote. The tragic irony is that these young people, many of whom already felt like the American political system was failing them, were encouraged to lay down one of the most powerful political tools they have, thereby ensuring an amplification of their own oppressions.” And he’s saying they were encouraged basically not to vote. I mean, you have, for example, Blacktivist, which turns out to be, you know, a Russian troll, etc.

MASHA GESSEN: You know, I think this is tragic, because I think that instead of engaging with what actually happened in the 2016 election, among American citizens and American activists who were making real, tough decisions about whether to vote and how to vote, we’re now focusing on the Russians, right?

I mean, I remember listening to an interview with Michelle Alexander, the wonderful African-American activist, a few weeks before the election, and how painful it seemed for her to talk about the election and how she said that she was going to have a really difficult time voting for Hillary Clinton, and she wasn’t going to say unequivocally that she was going to vote for Hillary. And I was listening to that interview, and I thought, “Oh, my god, she is going to lose. She is so clearly going to lose, right?” And she was not going to lose because Russians were telling young African Americans to stay home. She was going to lose, in part, because there were very good reasons for young African Americans and old African Americans to stay home, because there was a very visceral memory of her position on prison reform and welfare reform and the incredibly racist rhetoric around her in the 1990s. And she hadn’t addressed it in any kind of convincing way. And to trivialize that tragic rift by saying that the Russians did it is just a huge disservice to our political conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, in terms of the noise that’s out there, I mean, in social media, the amount of people in the United States—and, of course, this is outside, this is foreign influence, but I’m sure there were many others who were doing the same thing—I mean, how significant was this?

MASHA GESSEN: So, I mean, the answer is we don’t know. We don’t know how significant it was. From the information that is publicly available right now, if you look at what they were doing, if you look at how effective what they were doing was—and what I mean is, you know, how effective in sort of social network metrics terms, right?—most of their posts and ads got fewer than average views, because they weren’t very good. They had a couple of runaway successes, but, basically, most of their money was wasted, by social network standards, right? We’re talking, according to the indictment, about a budget of a little over a million dollars a month, right? So, let’s say they did this for a year. They spent—let’s say, you know, they spent $15 million—in a campaign in which one side spent a billion dollars, right? What do we have to imagine to say, with the kind of certainty with which we’ve been saying it, that Russians swayed the election? I mean, granted, the election was won by 77,000 votes in three counties, and so anything, you know, the weather, could have swayed the election. But to point the blame at Russia specifically, I think, is misleading. And again, it just detracts from the conversation we should be having, which is about how Americans elected Trump.

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