The Washington, D.C., newsroom of Sputnik, a radio station funded by the Russian government. (Photo by Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)

Today the New York Times Magazine posted an important piece by media columnist Jim Rutenberg, who traveled to Moscow to report on an under-appreciated aspect of Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections. Rutenberg details a media war on U.S. democracy that is being waged via “a loose network of Russian-government-run or -financed media outlets and apparently coordinated social-media accounts.”

Rutenberg’s piece isn’t the first effort to lift the veil on this insidious threat, nor will it be the last. But it’s a crucial contribution to our understanding of the true nature of what can only be described as a Russian propaganda war — in particular, how it is aimed at dividing us from one another, and undermining our own trust in our own institutions.

This propaganda war, Rutenberg reports, is a different sort of attack on our democracy from the Russian cyber-attacks and computer hacking we’ve heard so much about. It demonstrates how the Russian assault is multi-faceted and often opaque to American news consumers. By injecting a barrage of “news” into the social media ecosystem, the goal is to manipulate and confuse American viewers and readers, sowing division and chaos in American politics and society.

Rutenberg’s piece reaches the stark conclusion that Russia “has built the most effective propaganda operation of the 21st century so far, one that thrives in the feverish political climates that have descended on many Western publics.” Here’s how it works:

  • Elevate the extremes to undermine the center. Kremlin-operated media outlets like television station RT and the website Sputnik broadcast “news,” which can be conspiracy theories, blatantly false stories, or even reporting intended to bolster a far-right or far left position. The common goal is to “put pressure on the political center,” Rutenberg writes, or, as an analytics expert who has studied RT’s social media networks told him, “to pump up the fringe at the expense of the middle.”
  • Aim to go viral. The audience reach of RT, which is broadcast on cable and satellite in the U.S., is not thought to be particularly large. But false reports, such as baseless or fabricated stories about violence committed by refugees, coup attempts, or riots, get amplified on social media, including by bots. RT’s small television audience therefore doesn’t matter, Rutenberg writes, as “the network has come to form the hub of a new kind of state media operation: one that travels through the same diffuse online channels, chasing the same viral hits and memes, as the rest of the Twitter-and-Facebook-age media.”
  • Exploit American free press protections while subverting the American press. Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin suppresses a free press in Russia, his media arms Sputnik and RT claim First Amendment protections under the United States Constitution. In supporting RT, Putin has made his bias known: Its goal, he has said, is to “break the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon global information streams.” (These claims to First Amendment protections may eventually be undermined by U.S. law enforcement efforts to crack down on the outlets’ registration under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, a law passed in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda in the U.S.)
  • Foster Americans’ distrust in their own institutions. Sowing doubt and confusion among its Western viewers is not just RT’s mission, it’s the network’s stated goal. Its slogan: “Question more.”

Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov admitted to Rutenberg that “war” is an appropriate characterization of Kremlin efforts. And even though the American public has known about this self-described “war” for at least the last eight months, if not longer, it nonetheless remains a subject difficult to grasp, or to prove to a skeptical Facebook friend or relative.

Our intelligence services have documented this threat, too. The January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment, which found that “Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” detailed in particular the role of RT, “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” whose goal is to “undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.” Information warfare expert Molly McKew recently wrote that in this “vision of total warfare,” the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is “chaos.”

There are no easy answers to how to combat this threat, particularly since Trump himself seems determined to spread his own disruptions of the media ecosystem, with his attacks on a free press, promotion of false news stories, and endless lies. But only with more reporting and more exposure — and an essential bolstering, by people in leadership positions, of trust in institutions like the free press — can the American public fully understand the forces at work here. As McKew wrote, these Russian “tactics begin to fail when light is thrown onto how they work and what they aim to achieve. But as McKew notes, this “requires leadership and clarity about the threat.”

We have yet to see much of a response along these lines. Without it, the Russian efforts to sow chaos and disruption have a fertile field in which to take hold.