A month ago, I analyzed the Pizzagate conspiracy theory in response to Richard Beck’s interpretation that it is a modern-day witch hunt, motivated out of acute social anxieties that cause people to attack scapegoats. These witch hunts thus permit a feeling of personal power. If you recall, “Pizzagate” believers assert (still) that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta are running a child pedophilia ring. At the time, they believed the ring was secreted in a small mom and pop pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong, on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. (See my last blog, “Are Clinton’s Pedophilia Ring Accusations Akin to Witchcraft Hysteria” for a fuller discussion.)
In my earlier blog, I had asserted there were too many unknowns for a complete analysis. Among the unknowns were the identities of significant actors in this conspiracy theory, especially given its online nature. I had noted that if there were State actors involved, then this would require more sophisticated analysis than either Beck or I could provide, for example. The scope and nature of the witch hunt was, therefore, also unknowable.
We do know that Alex Jones’s Infowars site took down its article supporting the Pizzagate theory after the shooting in December 2016. As of yesterday, January 6, 2017, we also know that Russia was engaged in information warfare to attack Hillary Clinton and either prevent her from becoming president or to lay the groundwork for crippling her presidency, if elected (1). Based on information provided in that joint CIA, FBI, NSA report (2), we now know that Russia employed fake news, propaganda from its RT news organ, and trolls to harm Hillary Clinton. We also know from a July 2016 Business Insider (3) article that Russia was using bots to amplify tweets and other social media that harmed Clinton by overwhelming all other communications.
Russia’s targeted audience, which it sought to mobilize, was (and is) the more credulous in society. To support Beck’s hypothesis, the audience is also the more anxious among us: those less educated and those experiencing economic stresses. These sorts of individuals are precisely those who constitute the overwhelming majority of President-elect Trump’s true believers. The young man who felt the need to rescue the children whom he believed to be sexual victims at Comet Ping Pong was feeling economic stress. The fact that General Flynn’s son did not fit this profile is interesting, since he was affluent and successful—serving on the President-elect’s transition team at the time he was tweeting support for the theory after the shooting. Still unanswered questions there.
So, was this conspiracy theory–and other theories such as the one that asserts the Clintons were/are serial murderers–witch hunts? Yes. Witch hunts that were likely supported, and perhaps manufactured by, an outside government.
What is even more troubling to me as both a social scientist and a citizen of the United States is that President-elect Trump has expressed appreciation to outlets such as Infowars and Breitbart for their support in his election. He has attacked mainstream media, and he continues to do so. He has attacked our intelligence services, thus undermining confidence in them by his true believers and sending shock waves through our allies. He has attacked the election process’s legitimacy (It’s rigged!) and accused California of massive voter fraud by “illegal immigrants.” He refused to state clearly that he would honor election results during and after a presidential candidate debate. He tweeted many outlandish statements and promised to imprison his opponent after the election.
All of these actions, perhaps coincidentally, align with Russian tactics for undermining elections and democratic nations in Europe. This troubles me a great deal. Trump’s assertion that the intelligence research documenting Russian actions in the United States is a “witch hunt” (4) is just as troubling. We must ask, was Trump or someone close to him using knowledge of Russian tactics and/or benefiting from Russian cooperation? This is an essential question, given Russia’s aggressive actions in Europe and Trump’s previous statements regarding NATO as outdated.
This leads me to discuss what we in the public can be told about Russian methods in Europe. Russia’s aggressive tactics have been researched by NATO and European think tanks. Unclassified summaries are available online in greater detail than yesterday’s joint publication from US intelligence services. NATO has published a great deal of what has been learned from the Ukraine election and it is available online in pdf’s.
Below, I refer to unclassified summary from Keir Giles, Chatham House, London (5) to summarize.
Russia’s information wars, its target audience and its tactics are identical to those used to attack Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in the US: fake news (lies), manufactured news (another kind of lie), trolls and bots to overwhelm the news agencies, sow distrust in them, and to plant distrust of the government officials and the government itself. Russia’s cyber-warfare in Europe involves efforts to gain access to critical infrastructure. Thirdly, Russia bribes and thus co-opts officials in the country it is targeting. In addition, Russia financially supports extremist groups to destabilize the nation. Finally, Russia engages in acts of military threat in multiple ways: Russia positions its troops along its borders in a way that permits rapid and undetectable deployment into the bordering nation; Russia engages in airspace incursions over its neighbors and reminds these nations of its nuclear capabilities. Unfortunately, Giles concludes that, in Europe, information warfare has been successful in sowing distrust of government and mainstream media, while bolstering extremist groups.
Alarmingly, Stephen Bannon’s former news outlet, Breitbart is expanding into France and Germany in anticipation of elections there. In Germany, Breitbart recently published a totally fake story regarding Islamic attacks on a church. The press instantly condemned the story as false and was criticized for its lie from the highest government officials (6). It is well known that Angela Merkel is fighting strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim actors in her election bid. This fake news could only be intended to bolster her opponents and strengthen anti-Muslim sentiment. Another witch hunt.
It is apparent that witch hunts, and perhaps even the more destabilizing witch crazes, might be the newest, deeply troubling aspect of contemporary social and political life. As long as nations have difficulty addressing the new information warfare’s tactics, national stability and democratic life are at threat.
Late News that affects this blog article:
- The Guardian reports today, January 7, 2017, that British intelligence tipped off US intelligence regarding the many and frequent contacts between Moscow and the Trump Campaign, with the expectation that the FBI was to follow up. This adds further concerns regarding the similarity between Russia’s information warfare and the tactics of the Trump campaign. Borger, Julian. “UK intelligence gave US key tipoff about Russian hacking, report says.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/07/russia-us-election-hacking-uk-intelligence
- The BBC yesterday reported that the US and NATO countries are amassing forces on Russia’s borders. There must be a concern that Russia plans to intensify its military threat. “US tanks arrive in Germany to help Nato defences.” BBC News. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-38537689
- NCIC Federal Bureau of Investigation. GRIZZLY STEPPE Russian Malicious Cyber Activity. Reference Number: JAR-16-20296 December 29, 2016. https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3248231/Report-on-Russian-Hacking.pdf
- Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections. ICA 2017-01D 6 January 2017. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017
- Bertrand, Natasha. “It looks like Russia hired internet trolls to pose as pro-Trump Americans.” Business Insider. July 27, 2017, 8:23 AM. http://www.businessinsider.com/russia-internet-trolls-and-donald-trump-2016-7
- Nakamura, David. “Investigation of Russian hacking is a ‘witch hunt,’ Trump says. Washington Post. January 6, 2017, 11:21 PM. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/investigation-of-russian-hacking-is-a-witch-hunt-trump-says/2017/01/06/cf330600-d430-11e6-a783-cd3fa950f2fd_story.html?utm_term=.642f31c7cc17
- Giles, Keir. Research paper. “Russia’s ‘New’ Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power.” Russia and Eurasia Programme. Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. March 2016. https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/publications/research/2016-03-21-russias-new-tools-giles.pdf
- Cerulus, Laurens. “Germany fires back at Breitbart for report on New Year’s ‘riot’: Police called the night ‘average to quiet.’ Politico. January 7, 2017, 2:50 PM CET. Updated January 7, 2017, 2:52 PM CET. http://www.politico.eu/article/germany-fires-back-at-breitbart-for-report-on-new-years-riot/