Social Media, Russia and Our Present Discontent


           I’m not sure why Twitter suspended the account of Black Lives Matter leader Sasha Johnson. Her tweet that she wasn’t calling for equality with white people, but, rather, for the enslavement of white folks, was controversial to be sure. But how certain are we she actually wrote it? And if she did, candidly, I’m grateful for the warning about her hopes and dreams.

            My hunch is that the tweet was actually authored on Komsomolsky Prospekt in Moscow, by trolls in the Unit 26165 of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU), a lineal descendant of the Soviet KGB. One of the unit’s targets is the United States. You can disrupt a democracy, an open society, as much with inflammatory misinformation as you can with tampering with a ballot box, after all.

            Thomas Rid’s Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020) is a breathtaking account of the use of disinformation as an ordinary tool of political conflict. His message? Disinformation didn’t end with the Cold War; it transformed itself thereafter into new and improved means of sowing chaos. The former Soviet Union’s taste for “active measures,” that is, the use of lies, forgeries and disinformation, was passed down to Russia. It is a form of warfare by political means.

            The Soviets/Russians have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on disinformation. Early in the Cold War, we, too, spent lavishly trying to undermine confidence in communist regimes. Rid notes we lost our taste for deception along the way; I can’t help but wonder whether that is true. Who really knows what intelligence agencies do? The truth is discovered, when it is discovered at all, long after the events in question.

            Rid is an information security professor at the Johns Hopkins University and he has testified before Congress. His work is well-supported with references to now unclassified reports, memoirs and interviews with former, and, one suspects, active members of intelligence communities. His footnotes cite sources written in Russian and German, where the East German intelligence service, the Stasi, was once active. He navigates a shadowy world with apparent confidence.

            We are a target. Since the 1950s, the KGB has used race as a means of inflaming passions against the United States. “I knew our propaganda [in the 1950s] was exaggerating the extent of racism in the United States,” wrote Oleg Kalugin, a former Soviet intelligence official in his memoir, Spymaster. Back then, the KGB would write poisonous tracts claiming to be the KKK, and would then send them to United Nations diplomats to stir up discord.

            I wonder how much of the incendiary nonsense online these days is the work of the GRU using race to turn us against one another. Indeed, I wonder how often I have been duped, my emotions played like a twisted Stradivarius, by operatives in a boiler room in Moscow.

            Rid gives example of recent social media disinformation, or propaganda.

            Did you see Pamela Morton’s tweet in 2015 asking whether we should feed 10,000 Syrian rebels or take care of 50,000 homeless veterans? She was a creation of the Russian Internet Agency, a disinformation organ. So, too, was an early Black Lives Matter account, @BlackToLive. Or how about the Army of Jesus post in 2016, pitting Jesus and Trump vs. Hillary and Satan? These, too, were Russian.

            One aim of a disinformation campaign is to destabilize an opponent.

            Mission accomplished this year in the United States.

            Consider the Jacob Blake case in Kenosha. Police are called to investigate a complaint that a man was violating a criminal protective order involving a woman he had previously raped. There are open warrants for the man. Police arrive. The man resists arrest and struggles with police officers. Officers draw their weapons. The man ignores them, and walks to his car. As he reaches into the, he is shot.

            That’s a justified police shooting.

            But not so on social media: Innocent black man shot in the back as his children watch.

            Outcome? Riots.

            Or consider today’s news. Breona Taylor’s estate awarded $12 million dollars. What happened? Police with a warrant go to an apartment door. They announce their presence. Shots are fired at the officers through the door. They return fire. Breona is hit and killed. (She wasn’t the shooter.) Tragic, yes. Worthy of riots? No.

            Or consider the interest in reparations for slavery: I am reminded of the Soviet efforts to fund and influence the anti-nuclear movement in North America and Europe. 

            I have more confidence in the common sense of the American people than the reactions to the Blake and Taylor cases reflect. I’ve got to believe that we’re helped along in the destructive racial narrative that grips the land. The cry of systemic racism suddenly transforms the nation into warring camps. As a white male, I must confess my white privilege or be labelled a racist.

            This is mere gibberish masquerading as social philosophy.

            After the 2016 election, we engaged in a searching examination of Russian interference in the elections. We should begin now to study the impact the Russians are having on the formation of public opinion. We’re better than this.

            When former Attorney General Eric Holder said years ago that we have yet to have a serious discussion about race in the United States, I agreed. I assumed that Russian work exposing the fault lines in our society would promote discussion. I didn’t imagine things would come to the point of civil unrest, even violence, in the name of social justice. As I read Rid’s book, I wondered just how much gasoline the Russians have poured on our smoldering fires.

           Read Rid’s book. And the next time you see something so crazy, so bizzare, that it doesn’t look like it can be true, ask the author to explain themself. Challenge them. I doubt, for example, that Sasha Johnson really wants to enslave me. That’s such a stupid idea only a Russian would put those words in her mouth, and then expect me to get upset about it, as I, and, apparently, the censors at Twitter did.

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