The 2016 presidential election and Donald Trump have given Russia a wonderful opportunity to showcase one of its best national products: a particularly effective type of media manipulation called “kompromat.”
Short for “compromising material” in Russian, kompromat is all about the intersection of news and blackmail. It’s the ability to sully the reputations of political opponents or pressure allies through hints, images, videos, promises of disclosures, perhaps even some high-quality faked documentation. Sex or pornography often figures prominently. The beauty of kompromat is that it has to create only a sense of doubt, not prove its case conclusively. This sounds a bit like “fake news,” but in a classic kompromat operation, real Russian state media organizations work in tandem with the Kremlin to find appealing and effective ways to discredit the target. Often, that means in the most visceral and personal ways possible.
Now kompromat may have come to the United States.
This past week, news broke that U.S. intelligence officials had briefed Trump on unsubstantiated allegations that Russian operatives had gathered scandalous information on him or had had contacts with his advisers. But kompromat was a constant undercurrent in the campaign, too: National security officials say hackers linked to Russian intelligence got into the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the Gmail account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in order to leak damaging information about her. And Trump’s love of conspiracy theories and baseless accusations isn’t so far from the Russian concept, either — which may be why the idea that he might have been a target of kompromat himself is resonating so clearly with his political opponents.
The Kremlin has denied that it sought to gather compromising information on Trump during his visits to Russia, as it has denied involvement in the DNC hacks. But a high-profile businessman such as Trump would be a prototypical target for such an operation. And denials are also standard.
Kompromat has evolved well beyond the clumsy photo-editing of the Stalin era, when political opponents were carefully airbrushed out . Several opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin or the Russian regime find themselves facing charges of possession of child pornography that they believe was planted by Russian operatives — in Russia, but also in Lithuania and Britain.
Another tactic of choice involves sex tapes. In 2010, videos of Russian opposition journalists and politicians who had been filmed separately having sex with the same young Russian woman were leaked online. Last year, an opposition political party was damaged when a tape emerged of a married party leader having sex with an aide. Putin has been involved in such operations for years: In 1999, when he was the head of the FSB (the post-Soviet successor to the KGB), Putin reportedly helped then-President Boris Yeltsin to discredit and dismiss powerful prosecutor Yuri Skuratov, who had threatened to reveal which Russian officials were siphoning money to foreign bank accounts. When Yeltsin could not persuade the parliament to fire Skuratov, a video of the prosecutor — or at least a man who resembled him — having sex with prostitutes was aired on television. This all may sound like something out of “The Americans,” but it’s politics as usual in Russia.
Still, some clumsy attempts have backfired: In 2012, a media outlet published a picture of Kremlin opponent Alexei Navalny allegedly posing with exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, a Putin nemesis; the caption darkly suggested that forces outside Russia were funding opposition efforts. Navalny then produced the original photo, in which he was actually standing with a different man, and Russians were soon gleefully creating their own doctored images online of Navalny with individuals such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Adolf Hitler and an extraterrestrial.
Kompromat is beautifully flexible. If a story isn’t playing well or if there is too much credible pushback, the perpetrators simply move on without apology or correction. The story disappears abruptly, leaving only confusion or unease in the minds of the audience. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever see proof of the more outlandish claims about what Russian security services might have on Trump, but the image lingers anyway. While the days of maladroit Soviet propaganda are long gone, there are still echoes of it, particularly with the Kremlin’s commitment to lies and falsehood. Like the layers of the famous Russian nesting dolls, kompromat exists within a system of other “normal” reporting, truth and lies mixed together in an appealing way.
The revelations around the U.S. campaign have highlighted kompromat’s move from a domestic to an international tool. This is part of Russia’s expanding global information war, which has focused on news manipulation and fakes. These efforts have been deployed to counter criticism of Russia over international events: The country tried to find ways to blame Ukraine for the destruction of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, when evidence clearly pointed to Russian military involvement in the downing of the flight and the deaths of all 298 people aboard. There is clear evidence, too, that Russia is trying to influence the media in other countries: A study published this month documented how Russian operatives had attempted to sway Swedish affairs through media manipulation, including forgeries and disinformation. Ukrainian journalists founded StopFake, an organization that detects and reports on widespread Russian manipulation of the news there. In Lithuania, a volunteer army tries to fight Russian trolls pushing conspiracy theories online.
The irony in the controversy over whether Russia has or has sought kompromat on Trump is that Trump has dabbled in deploying kompromat himself. His false claim while feuding last fall with a former Miss Universe that the woman had made a sex tape was a classic example. His years-long campaign to convince the public that President Obama was not born in the United States echoed the idea of kompromat; he constantly claimed to have material that proved the president was lying about his birthplace. He never produced any, and he walked away from the charge last fall, telling a new lie — that Clinton had started the birther movement — in the process. When challenged, Trump has a tendency to attack the questioner rather than answer the question. That leaves journalists trying to fill in the gaps, but it also means coverage of his outrageous comments draws attention away from critical reporting on Trump or his lack of policy specifics. By impugning individuals, Trump was able to dominate the news cycle in both the primary and general-election campaigns, shifting focus from his weaknesses by attacking others.
Kompromat is a powerful tool that highlights some of the challenges for U.S. politicians, media and citizens in the current media age. Americans are unlikely to rely on Russian media for their news, but — as we’re learning — that doesn’t mean Russian propagandists can’t exploit the media environment in the United States to use insinuations, rather than facts, to influence political news. Why should we believe what a foreign country with a demonstrated determination to challenge American interests says about one of our politicians? Yet Russian kompromat has been able to take advantage of political divisions in the United States, and in that way, the Russians score a victory.
Still, even with Trump’s taste for personal attacks, kompromat is unlikely to thrive in the United States as it has in Russia. The U.S. media system is nothing like Russia’s, which is hampered by state control and a range of repressive measures. Kompromat is a reflection of the use of the media as a tool for elites rather than as a service to the public. There was a time when Russia was one of the most dangerous countries in world for journalists, when reporters were attacked and killed for their work at an alarming rate. Now the violence has faded as control has consolidated under the Kremlin, leaving Russians with isolated pools for independent voices and an atmosphere of fear of free speech.
Trump lacks access to the full power of kompromat because he has to function in a country where journalists are free to report and where much of the audience still expects at least some sense of reality. And he faces a significant and powerful opposition. Unlike in Russia, where substantial elements of the media are loyal to the Kremlin by choice or force, the U.S. media — as Trump tell us repeatedly and bitterly — seems unwilling to toe the line and report only what he wants.
When politicians such as Trump use half-truths, spurious accusations and character assassination, they echo the tactics used by the Kremlin. Now that Trump could be a victim of those tactics, maybe he’ll have a renewed appreciation for the value of the free press.