During Thursday’s highly informative hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Clinton Watts, a former FBI special agent, explained that President Trump helped spread Russian propaganda by echoing its claims during the campaign. He said:
What’s more, Trump has continued to parrot Russian-friendly themes since the election. Claiming 3 million to 5 million illegal votes were cast or that President Obama wiretapped him, Trump furthers Russia’s intention to undermine American democracy, sow doubt about the legitimacy of our system and claim moral equivalency for his own anti-democratic tactics. Trump even discredits the Kremlin’s competing information sources — independent, legitimate news organizations.
Is Trump following the Kremlin’s lead or is the Kremlin watching the antics of the man it wanted to elect? Most likely, Trump gets the Kremlin propaganda that has been expertly laundered through social media. Watts explained:
[W]e observed hecklers, synchronized trolling accounts that would attack political targets using similar talking points and follower patterns. These accounts, some of which overtly supported the Kremlin, promoted Russian foreign policy positions targeting key English speaking audiences throughout Europe and North America. From this pattern, we realized we were observing a deliberate, well organized, well resourced, well funded, wide ranging effort commanded by only one possible adversary – Russia. . . .From these overt Russian propaganda outlets, a wide range of English language conspiratorial websites (“gray” outlets), some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing, sensationalize conspiracies and fake news published by white outlets further amplifying their reach in American audiences. American looking social media accounts, the hecklers, honeypots and hackers described above, working alongside automated bots further amplify and disseminate Russian propaganda amongst unwitting Westerners. These covert, “black” operations influence target audience opinions with regards to Russia and undermine confidence in Western elected leaders, public officials, mainstream media personalities, academic experts and democracy itself.
In other words, just as in the Cold War, now there are “useful idiots” for Russia in the West who ingest propaganda and spit it back out. You see the residue in blogs, right-wing talk radio and TV cable shows hosted by pro-Trump acolytes. During the campaign Trump had a group of Russia-friendly advisers, some of whom had financial ties to Russia, egging him on. Wittingly or not, they too pushed along Russia-helpful story lines. As Watts testified, former campaign manager Paul Manafort during the campaign repeated a totally false Internet story, apparently created or fanned by pro-Russian sources.
However, when it comes to giving Russian disinformation entree into Western democracy nothing beats the president of the United States. He is the most useful of them all.