The New Hysteria on Kremlin Trolls

On Christmas day, CounterPunch readers who opened the Washington Post were confronted by a startling lede in the top article. Under the alarmist headline, “Kremlin Trolls Burned across the Internet as Washington Debated Options.” the piece reported that one “Alice Donovan” had contacted CounterPunch back in February 2016 and later posted articles on its website. She had claimed to be a freelance journalist, but her first email to CounterPunch, sent at 3:26 a.m. (which, the Post reminded us darkly, was “the middle of the day in Moscow”), was shared to buttress the central claim drawn from FBI sources: “Donovan” was actually a covert Russian agent.

According to the Post, “The FBI was tracking Donovan as part of a months-long counterintelligence operation code-named ‘NorthernNight.’ Internal bureau reports described her as a pseudonymous foot soldier in an army of Kremlin-led trolls seeking to undermine America’s democratic institutions.” CounterPunch had become the hapless propaganda patsy of this troll “army” and editor Jeffrey St. Clair was scrambling fruitlessly to sort out what had happened.

So far, so alarming. But CounterPunch readers are used to parsing media claims and under the briefest scrutiny the Post article quickly fell apart into a mass of unsupported assertions—even leaving aside obvious mysteries, such as why we are now supposed to take writing in the wee hours as revealing someone’s true location in Eastern Europe (I now wonder what my insomniac messages are suggesting) and why a writer as obscure as Donovan warranted the Post’s lede in the first place.

Most sobering about “Kremlin Trolls” was that the most basic information, obligatory for all responsible journalism, was conspicuously missing. How did the Post get access to this FBI information? What are these “internal bureau reports” exactly and what is their provenance (that is, who had handled them as they made their way to the Post, always a crucial question)? On what legal basis did the Post (that is, lead writer Adam Entous*) contact CounterPunch about someone under FBI scrutiny – assuming for the moment that this person, or pseudonymous person, was indeed under such scrutiny? And why consume a Post article lede with this one low-level obscure writer, then with 47 Twitter followers?

Moreover, what was the dreadful deed alleged Russian agent Donovan had perpetrated?

Increasingly, she seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding by stoking discontent toward Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and touting WikiLeaks, which U.S. officials say was a tool of Russia’s broad influence operation to affect the presidential race.

Everything was wrong with this language. “Seemed to be doing the Kremlin’s bidding?” This is pure innuendo, hardly “did” the Kremlin’s bidding. In fact, aside from (mishandled) assertions of FBI suspicions, “Kremlin Trolls” provided no hard evidence of any Kremlin connection with Donovan at all. “Stoking discontent toward … Hillary Clinton?” It hardly takes a Kremlin affiliation to explain popular “discontent” with a candidate that too many American voters disliked or detested for a plethora of reasons. And Donovan’s last alleged sin, “touting WikiLeaks?” Consider the Post’s quote from her:

“There’s no denying the emails that Julian Assange has picked up from inside the Democratic Party are real,” she wrote in August 2016 for a website called We Are Change. “The emails have exposed Hillary Clinton in a major way — and almost no one is reporting on it.”

This is mild, even bland, language in the larger context of the DNC scandal, Yet the Post treats a writer’s simply drawing attention to the leaked/hacked DNC files as evidence of espionage, taking as given that Wikileaks is a “tool of Russia’s broad influence operation.” (No evidence of such a “tool” function is provided, except an allusion to “U.S. officials,” which covers a vast gamut of people.)

In place of this evidence, the Post simply leaps, without explanation, in the next paragraph to imply Donovan’s connection to “Kremlin ambitions”:

The events surrounding the FBI’s NorthernNight investigation follow a pattern that repeated for years as the Russian threat was building: U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies saw some warning signs of Russian meddling in Europe and later in the United States but never fully grasped the breadth of the Kremlin’s ambitions.

All CounterPunch readers’ warning antennas should have been fully extended by this time, recognizing this shift as a stock rhetorical trick: guilt by rhetorical juxtaposition. (Logical fallacy 101 example: “Bob X was seen strolling through the neighborhood last night. Dangerous criminals are strolling through the neighborhood at night.” Intended take-away: “Bob X is a dangerous criminal.”) Journalists also know that vital qualifiers like “seems” will commonly slip from readers’ memories, while vague allusions to “officials” and “reports” are weasel terms to imply evidentiary authority while lacking any (or hiding that one’s real source was someone speaking behind his hand in the back of a bar). Combined with a shrill headline, such methods lead inattentive readers to take speculation as fact and become willing soldiers for the campaign. Forget ideas like “evidentiary threshold.” Evidence itself has no real meaning in this coverage: it is, Trump-like, merely intuitive and visceral.

The intention of this rhetorical style was, in this instance, clear. For Post readers, the take-away in “Kremlin Trolls” was meant to be dire: to summarize, “a dangerous Russian agent in a Kremlin ‘army’ has planted stories in CounterPunch and other liberal forums under a pseudonym in a Russian government secret program to manipulate and subvert US politics; CounterPunch was duped by this agent; therefore, don’t trust CounterPunch.” Yet if its innuendo and other muck are sifted away, “Kremlin Trolls” actually boiled down to this: “One of CounterPunch’s less-known writers might have been using a pseudonym.” My God. The Republic is in peril.

We might want to set this article aside as an aberrant slip-up for the Post. But “Kremlin Trolls” only capped an extended and ongoing campaign of increasingly terrible Post journalism. For the past year, authors Entous (who joined the Post in 2016, and was caught on tape saying “I do all the stuff for the Post on this”), Ellen Nakashima and sometimes Greg Jaffe have been writing a series of fevered lead articles describing massive Russian cyber-espionage and trolling campaigns aimed at subverting (if not hijacking) the entire US political system. A ubiquitous feature of all these stories has been the above-noted slippery language: a common rhetorical ploy is to slide from evidence about “Russians” in one line (that is, people in Russia, Russian people anywhere), transposing this without explanation to “the Russians” (i.e., the state) in the next line, and, ipso facto, morphing this into “Putin” a few more lines down, eliding any question of actual connections among these levels. Another feature has been the breathless and increasingly alarmist tone of the series, to the point where—at least, judging by the Post’s comment sections—a growing mass of the Post readership has become seized by the idea that the entire Republic is now under massive assault by a dangerous and insidious enemy, often personified as a kind of Dracula vision of President Putin.

With the same message reinforced by a fleet of fellow travelers (CNN, MSNBC, Slate, USA Today, etc.), any protest against this groupthink is now routinely met by accusations of being at best block-headed and at worst complicit in Russian espionage. Rare voices challenging the Russophobe narrative—for example, Glenn Greenwald’s occasional sparks of reality, including his devastating summary of related false reports—are discredited as Russia’s useful idiots or even as mere ciphers for Trumpist (or naïve leftist, or whatever) denialism. (My own feeble and rare attempts to urge caution on the Russia stories in various online comment sections have been met instantly with rapid fleets of accusations that I am a “troll,” “Russian bot,” “kamikaze drone strike,” “Sarah Huckabee,” “Vlad” and so forth. If we’re to worry about cyber armies seizing our social media, personally I’ve seen mostly the Russophobic one.)

The uniquely solid edifice of this rejection reflects how domestic politics on the Russia question have become so complex. For those who jumped on the Russophobia bandwagon because they hate President Trump, challenging the narrative of Russian subversion only buys into bogus White House denials and threatens a hoped-for avenue to his delegitimization and potential impeachment. For those old cold warriors who can’t imagine the earth without a Russian threat, resistance to the narrative imperils both the American Republic (for which the Russians are always the Evil Other, whatever they do) and an associated package of bloated defense contracts. Liberals, doves, hawks and conservatives are finding common ground here. A more dangerous confluence could hardly be imagined, as it combines forces normally in healthy opposition to each other in conspiring toward one grim end: a terrible and entirely pointless clash with Russia.

It goes without saying that good independent journalism is absolutely vital in this vast landscape of espionage, spying and intellectual theft. Most of us do want pressingly to know more about Russia cyber-espionage – and Chinese espionage, and any espionage that corrupts our public discourse — although we have far more grounds to worry about how our electoral system is being sabotaged by the GOP. But I also want coverage of such foreign threats to put them in proper perspective. Of course the Russian government is playing around with our social media: every government that can is doing this. This is life in our cyber-world. We spy on them; they spy on us. We spin stories, they spin stories. We undermine or overthrow governments to get our way, others may try to do the same, if they can. Cyberspace is the New Great Game, played by global actors solo or in alliances, and the cyber-warriors described by Snowden will be with us forever. But preserving our civil rights and security in this fraught setting rests heavily on how the fourth estate handles this brave new world. Does it really serves the polity to wax hysterical about just one component of it? Would such fear-mongering not just contribute to a coming clash among great powers that is utterly pointless and, in its potential for global mayhem, too terrible to imagine? Perspective and proportion are vital here.

Instead, what we are getting from sources like the Post series is a frankly Trumpesque view that it is not only acceptable but laudatory to buck fusty old journalistic restraints in favor of fiery language and gut impressions. This very message was indeed pushed in another part of “Kremlin Trolls,” where the writers dedicate several paragraphs to describing the dogged efforts of State Department Undersecretary Richard Stengel to get help for a propaganda campaign. Having been turned down by a whole country full of people who doubted his obsession too much to help with it, he finally found support from a 29-year-old shut-in living in Brighton, England. That this story might otherwise prompt readers to doubt Stengel’s read of the situation is derailed by pushing the staple meme of the heroic American lone campaigner.

Russophobia politics in the US are vast and complicated, and far beyond my ability to describe here. But I can raise an alarm. All of us have a growing stake keeping journalists accountable. This can even be considered a civil duty. So forget Fox News for the moment: let us consider the Post. Minimally, I’d like to know how Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Greg Jaffe attained such star positions in a top-flight news outlet when their writing is so obviously a thicket of innuendo, logical leaps, slippery language transitions, unnamed sources, inflated threats and sheer speculation morphing into claims of fact.

Now that they have so crudely overstepped in bringing these methods to discredit CounterPunch, their coverage deserves the hottest spotlight. Let us undertake that scrutiny with the care and urgency that it clearly requires.

* Update: After finishing this article I was informed that Adam Entous is moving this year to the New Yorker. I suggest that the same closer scrutiny should follow him to this new outlet.

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VIRGINIA TILLEY is associate professor of Political Science and International Relations, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and author of The One-State Solution: A Breakthrough for Peace in the Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock. She can be reached at: virginia.tilley@gmail.com.

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