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The Putin-proof golden rule to combat Russia's active measures - stop trashing each other

Kremlin, Moscow (by Минеева Ю. [Julmin], retouched by Surendil via Wikimedia Commons))

In his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election Special Counsel Robert Mueller described how Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) spread propaganda and disinformation and manipulated American public opinion through the use of social media.

"The IRA conducted social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system," the document stated.

These operations are described by the report as "active measures," a term that refers to the Russian intelligence's methods of propaganda and subversion directed at foreign governments. Originally, the phrase was used in the context of the Soviet Union's secret service, the KGB, but its practice has continued after the fall of the Soviet Union and has once again become a central part of Moscow's strategy.

Oleg Kalugin, a former KGB operative, told CNN in 1998:

[T]he other side of the Soviet intelligence, very important: perhaps I would describe it as the heart and soul of the Soviet intelligence -- was subversion. Not intelligence collection, but subversion: active measures to weaken the West, to drive wedges in the Western community alliances of all sorts, particularly NATO, to sow discord among allies, to weaken the United States in the eyes of the people of Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America, and thus to prepare ground in case the war really occurs. To make America more vulnerable to the anger and distrust of other peoples.
In that sense, the Soviet intelligence [was] really unparalleled. ...

The [KGB] programs -- which would run all sorts of congresses, peace congresses, youth congresses, festivals, women's movements, trade union movements, campaigns against U.S. missiles in Europe, campaigns against neutron weapons, allegations that AIDS ... was invented by the CIA ... all sorts of forgeries and faked material -- [were] targeted at politicians, the academic community, at [the] public at large. ...

Beginning in 2014, Russian intelligence has launched a sweeping active measures campaign to influence American and European public opinion. To this effect, Putin's regime made use of social media, with all the unprecedented opportunities that they offered.

According to the Mueller report, Russian agents created fake social media accounts and pages to direct public opinion by focusing on sensitive issues such as race and religion. Russian agents posed as Americans, deceiving internet users unaware of their real identity.

In 2017, Facebook announced that it had found 470 IRA-controlled accounts, while Twitter detcted 3,824 IRA-controlled accounts. The IRA also bought advertisements on social media, which were served to millions of users. Facebook alone estimated the reach of IRA accounts at 126 million users.

One example of IRA-controlled fake accounts was the Twitter account of Jenna Abrams, an alleged pro-Trump, far right blogger with thousands of followers who was later found to be a fake persona created by Russia's intelligence.  

Although active measures have been exposed, Russia continues to try to manipulate public opinion. Recently, Twitter has unveiled a tool to report election-related misinformation which will first be implemented in the European Union and India ahead of their elections.

But what can people do to stop Russia's interference right now?

The biggest problem with countering active measures is that they exploit already existing tensions and discord within society.

For example, Bernie Sanders has been the target of personal attacks by both Democrats and moderate conservatives. He was criticized for not releasing his tax returns more than any other candidate, and his pledge to release his tax returns "soon" was ridiculed and called into question by various members of the media, as well as by anonymous Twitter accounts. The tension between Bernie supporters, sections of the Democratic Party, conservatives and other groups, is one of those conflicts that the Russians may exploit - if they are not already doing so. 

Some of these commentators have a clear anti-Bernie Sanders attitude, and they have attacked him personally instead of discussing the issues.

Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote on April 3:

Through much of the 2016 campaign, the press maintained a glaring double standard. Since then-candidate Donald Trump was, well Trump, he was rarely grilled on his policy notions  ... The same pattern now repeats itself with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). He is indulged, allowed to skip by details, avoid probing and evade hard policy questions. We’d like to hear him pinned down, not permitted to move to the next topic without answering queries such as these: You promised over a month ago to release your tax returns. Why haven’t you? You say you just need to fix a few things, but aren’t past tax returns completed? Why does it take over a month to get them posted online? What things do you need to fix?

On April 11 a website affiliated to the Center for American Progress (CAP), a liberal think tank, posted a video titled “Bernie’s millionaire problem,” arguing that the Senator's millionaire status contradicted his anti-millionaire rhetoric.

On April 15 Neera Tanden, CEO of CAP and a critic of Sanders, issued an apology. “We believe the content of the ThinkProgress video critiquing Sen. Sanders is overly harsh and does not reflect our approach to a constructive debate of the issues,” she said.

Character assassination, moral equivalence between progressives and Trump, and other smear tactics are exactly the type of discord which Russians can easily exploit. There is nothing wrong about criticizing Bernie Sanders or any other candidate on the issues. There is also nothing wrong about poiting out that racial differences mean differences in experience and awareness. But demonization is the best way to deliver to Russia's intelligence the topics to build their propaganda on.

This is by no means limited to Senator Sanders. After the release of the Mueller report, the issue of impeachment became a point of contention among progressives.

It is legitimate to have a debate on impeachment. However, some progressives have claimed that Democrats who don't want to impeach Trump, or impeach Trump right now, are basically treasonous.

Michael Harriot wrote on The Root:

[W]hen CBS News and other outlets began reporting that Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats have decided not to push for a Donald Trump impeachment, it was not a surprise. Pelosi “urged caution” on impeachment talks while presidential candidate and noted white man Sen. Bernie Sanders said at a CNN town hall on Monday: “At the end of the day, what is most important to me is to see that Donald Trump is not re-elected president" ...

Not impeaching Trump is unconstitutional. Considering the ample evidence included in the Mueller report, if Trump cannot be impeached, then no president is worthy of impeachment. 
Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution states: 

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The Constitution does not clearly mandate the duty to impeach. Therefore, it is legitimate to have a conversation about impeachment. But some regard having such a conversation as unconstitutional and treasonous, and thus attack and demonize other progressives. 

We must all be aware that discord and hatred will be exploited by Russian trolls. Nobody knows who is a real person or a fake persona on social media. 

The only Putin-proof strategy for the future is to refrain from personal attacks, demonization, and promoting discord. Focusing on the issues, debating civilly, finding common ground, disagreeing respectfully, may not be fashionable in the age of Trump. But, alongside fact-checking, this is one of the only practical ways to effectively make Russian propaganda and disinformation irrelevant.  


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