author: nick giokas | contributor
The most difficult aspect of any psychological warfare campaign is getting the target audience to truly buy into the message you are selling them. The easiest way to do this is to function upon a pre-existing perception or narrative and provide a means for which the target audience can project and reinforce those narratives or beliefs. This is the underlying strategy the Kremlin has had vis-á-vis Hillary Clinton’s emails.
The headlines that were leaked to the press after FBI Director Comey’s letter (concerning new emails) displays just how effective Russian psychological operations [PSYOP] has been this election cycle. From what WikiLeaks has leaked in the past year, it would be far more likely that any emails involving Clinton would contain banal banter as they would anything tangentially damning, yet the media and the American populace jumped on the story. As soon as the letter leaked, everyone immediately knew without any evidence that this was damaging. How did this happen?
It began with the first email scandal. While Clinton was wrong to use a private email server, it was far from irregular (Colin Powell had one as well), since there has been no concrete policy regarding cyber security (and more specifically emails) at the State Department; furthermore, while it seems negligent to send emails with classified information, the Classification System in the US government is so convoluted that it’s incredibly common for something to be considered “classified,” even while it’s being reported on, in detail, on the nightly news. So, FBI Director Comey was correct in bringing no criminal charges against Clinton; therefore, the end result of the first email scandal was that Clinton had engaged in something that appeared wrong but had no legal wrongdoing. It’s at this point that Russian hackers and WikiLeaks were used by the Kremlin to descend upon the negative connotations of Clinton’s emails.
If you go back and look at how the media handled the DNC and Clinton email leaks, it becomes immediately obvious just how intricately the media connected the leaks to the previous email scandal, despite there being no concrete link. In fact, if you talk to anyone about the email scandals, most laypersons will speak of them as connected, rather than independent, entities. The reason for this ties back to Russian PSYOP. The most important part of effective PSYOP is that the target audience needs to believe they’re arriving at conclusions themselves. While it would hardly be a strong test of faith for the Russians to rely on right-wing media to connect the two scandals, what they truly needed was the sections of the American public that wouldn’t pay attention to that branch of media in order to force the connection into the mainstream. The best opportunity was when Bernie Sanders and his followers were complaining about a “rigged” primary system; all WikiLeaks had to do was simply leak the bulk data, allow colluding parties (in this case RT) to pre-select and de-contextualize sections of emails to enforce a narrative, and then wait for their target audience to take the bait.
If you read through the supposedly damning emails, there isn’t a whole lot there. But, if you ask anyone that was a Sanders supporter or a die-hard Republican, they’ll tell you that there most definitely is. It’s typical Russian sleight of hand in the disinformation game: if I tell you that documents back up a narrative you already believe in, you’re not going to read the documents, and even if you do, you won’t do it critically. That’s how we arrived at a point where the American public is collectively wearing the emperor’s new clothes. There’s literally nothing there, yet everyone’s arguing how bad it is – something the polls are reflecting.
If we can take anything away from the email scandals, especially the most recent one, it’s that Russian cyber-warfare is at a far more sophisticated level than previously anticipated. We, as a society, trust so unconditionally, as long as it fits with our pre-existing beliefs. This is why the majority of Trump supporters say the economy is in shambles, even though it’s having a record year, or why Sanders supporters bought so strongly into the idea that subverting the public vote was somehow more democratic (Clinton won the popular vote by 3.7 million with no DNC involvement). What Putin has done is not only helping Trump’s campaign, but shows just how easy it is to sow chaos and discontent in a populace via modernized PSYOP, which is a terrifying prospect for the future.