The longer Donald Trump is the center of American discourse, the more we sound like Russians.
Our news sounds more Russian, the way we think about our government is more Russian, and what we accept as fact starts to slip away.
Trump is fomenting conspiracy theories and delegitimizing the media and the government. Russia watchers know well that that’s a Kremlin tactic. The way the Russian government maintains control of information is not by forcing a story down its people’s throats but by spreading a million stories everywhere so no one believes anything.
The Kremlin maintains control by destroying trust in institutions until there’s nothing left to have faith in.
So when Melania Trump says that the discovery of her husband’s disgusting comments about women to Billy Bush a decade ago were part of a left-wing conspiracy, we’re becoming more Russian. When Trump says that Hillary Clinton is part of an international conspiracy of bankers, we’re becoming more Russian. When Trump embraces conspiracy theories championed by the permanently paranoid radio host Alex Jones, we’re becoming more Russian.
And that means trust in our system is eroding.
When ‘nothing is true, everything is permitted’
“The Kremlin exploits the idea of freedom of information to inject disinformation into society. The effect is not to persuade (as in classic public diplomacy) or earn credibility but to sow confusion via conspiracy theories and proliferate falsehoods.”
That’s from a 2014 report by American journalist Michael Weiss and Russian journalist Peter Pomerantzev. Pomerantzev is now a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute, London, where he runs a project on 21st-century propaganda and how to counter it. He has also testified before both houses of Congress about the dangers of Russian misinformation and its entrance into the US.
“In order to woo viewers the Kremlin has utterly blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Kremlin ‘current affairs’ programs are filled with spectacular scare-stories about Russian children crucified by Ukrainian militias or US conspiracies to ethnically cleanse East Ukraine. In a context where no one ‘believes’ any media, all that matters is that the ‘news’ is sensationalist and cinematic,” Pomerantsev told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee in November 2015.
For years I’ve spent time in and out of Columbia University’s School of Journalism as a student and as an adjunct professor. While there, I’ve worked with professor Ann Cooper, a former NPR bureau chief in Moscow and Russian speaker, to delve into Russian propaganda, specifically Russia Today, RT.
RT is a Kremlin-backed news channel available all around the world in English, Spanish, Arabic, and German. It launched in 2005 and exists to advance the agenda of the Russian government and expand its influence across the globe.
I’ve interviewed current and former RT employees and watched hours and hours of the channel. So have my students. And in that time we learned a very simple lesson. In Russia, it’s not about one truth. It’s about spreading a million untruths until the truth is impossible to find.
It’s about spreading paranoia until trust is dead.
Boris Nemtsov is dead, long live Boris Nemtsov
- REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva
Let’s take one incident as an example. In the winter of 2015, opposition activist Boris Nemstov was gunned down in front of the Kremlin before he was to lead an anti-Putin demonstration.
Once that happened, the spin machines went to work. We watched it all unfold from campus in New York City in English on RT.
From my student at the time, Pola Lem:
RT’s headlines about the shooting death of opposition figure Boris Nemtsov portray Russian investigators at work pursuing a broad range of theories about who is behind the contract-style killing. Nemtsov’s death may have been “a sort of ‘sacral sacrifice’ by those who don’t hesitate to use any methods to reach their political goals,” said one investigation official, according to RT.
Other theories under investigation: Nemtsov was murdered for something he said about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France (RT does not explain). Or, for his outspoken criticism of Russian involvement in the Ukrainian conflict. Or, business interests may have targeted him for his anti-corruption work. Or it might have been some sort of personal vendetta.
There was more. Some said Nemstov was murdered by the CIA. Other said it was MI5.
Rigged, Russia style
This is not unlike the many ways Trump and his cohorts insist he is being conspired against. It’s not unlike his insistence that the media rigging the election, that he will be denied a win because of widespread voting fraud, and that members of his own party are conspiring to defeat him.
This strategy isn’t about getting people to believe one specific theory of the world. It’s about spreading so much disinformation that nobody trusts anyone, and people yearn for a strongman who “tells it like it is” to protect them in a world that makes them paranoid.
This is a threat that will only go away when Trump loses legitimacy with those who support him.