The Seven Commandments of Fake News | NYT Opinion

The Seven Commandments of Fake News | NYT Opinion


“Co-exist!” May 21st, 2016 in
Houston, Tex. This is an anti-Islam
protest outside a mosque in the heart of downtown. “Our neighbors were
slaughtered by these — ” And literally across the
street, a counter-rally. “Pack it up!” “Take it home!” But not a single person
here — on either side of the street — realizes they’ve been duped. They’ve been brought here —
same place, same time — by two separate
Facebook events, posts which we
now know both came from the same source,
thousands of miles outside Texas, in Russia. – [non-English speech] Cold War-style “active measures”
in the American heartland in 2016. The same techniques,
the same origin. Even the same perpetrators. “The military who prevented
the hard-line coup from succeeding.” When the Soviet
Union fell in 1991, pretty much everyone assumed
that its disinformation apparatus died too. “Our government’s view
was problem solved. No more active measures. No more disinformation.” It also meant the end of
Vladimir Putin’s KGB career. But within a
decade, he was back, first as head of
the renamed KGB — the FSB — and not long
after, as the president. “Putin is a child of the KGB. He spent years in the KGB
being evaluated every year according to the
active measures and disinformation
he produced.” As soon as he took office,
Putin got right to work. His first few years were
spent testing disinformation inside Russia on Russians. But then he took it
overseas, launching Russia Today, a global
English-language news channel. It was soon available in
millions of American homes with a memorable slogan
and familiar faces. “I’ve been hearing about it. I’ve been reading about it.” Conflicts with Georgia,
and then the Ukraine, gave Putin a chance to
practice disinformation on a bigger stage,
and he also started funding something called
the Internet Research Agency, slowly putting
his pieces into place. But Putin isn’t sowing all
this chaos just for fun. All along, he’s
had a single goal. See, in terms of
population and G.D.P., Russia is actually a
pretty small country, especially when compared
to a unified Western world. But Putin knows that if he can
pit the West against itself and break up our
alliances, Russia is suddenly much
more powerful and can take on other
countries one by one. He’s trying to reshape the
world order in his favor, and disinformation is one
of his favorite tools. Now, to do this he’s using
a carefully crafted game plan — a playbook
of sorts — that he deploys again and again. “It’s magnificent
in its conception.” “That playbook is designed
to achieve a change in the behavior,
perception and viewpoints of foreign audiences
and governments.” Both Todd Leventhal
and Kathleen Bailey fought Moscow’s disinformation
more than 30 years ago for the U.S. government. “They are good.” And if you thought
convincing millions of people that the U.S. government created
AIDS as a biological weapon was audacious, wait til you
see what they’re up to today. But first, we need to take
a super-quick timeout here, because there’s an
awkward question you might be asking yourself. “Have we ever tried to
meddle in other countries’ elections?” “Hmm.” Yes, America is no
stranger to interfering in other countries. “The U.S. has attempted
to influence elections around the world for years.” But when it comes
to disinformation, Russia is in a
class by itself, with unmatched scale
and sophistication. And unlike the U.S., with its
myriad of investigations, Russia does it
without even a shred of public or historical
accountability. “We must never allow the
end to justify the means.” O.K.? Time in. Now, do you
remember Pizzagate, the one about Hillary
Clinton running a child sex ring from the basement
of a pizza parlor? It was everywhere
just a few weeks before the 2016 election,
and even inspired a believer to turn up at
the restaurant with a gun. “A shooting in a
D.C. pizza restaurant that was tied to a
fake news story — ” But that whole story was a
classic Soviet-style con, straight out of the playbook. “Look, there’s the
playbook, and it’s been a playbook that’s been
around for a very long time.” “And so they’re
using that tool box in order to try and
get what they want.” “So it’s a textbook
thing that they’ve known about for 20, 30
years and actually taught as part of their tradecraft.” So this is textbook, tool
box, playbook thing, whatever you want to call
it, the experts we spoke to kept talking
about it on these terms. Ed Lucas has studied
Russia for decades. First as a journalist and now
as a disinformation analyst. Dr. Claire Wardle
is an authority on internet
verification at Harvard. She’s been tracking
online lies since 2008. And this is Clint Watts,
former F.B.I. and military. He’s been shouting from the
rooftops about disinformation for years. With the help of our
experts, not to mention our spies and our
detectives, we’ve reverse engineered
the seven commandments of Russian disinformation,
a time-tested, step-by-step recipe to creating the
perfect fake news story. So rule No. 1,
look for cracks in the target society, social
divisions you can exploit and wedge open. “They look for economic,
social, demographic, linguistic, regional, ethnic,
any source of division.” “And how can we actually
emphasize those divisions and actually make people
lose trust in one another.” “So it’s like being a doctor. You have to
understand a patient. Oh, he’s got a bad knee. He’s got a sore hip. He’s got a disease that
causes weakness here. But instead of trying
to make it better, we try to make
everything worse.” Rule 2, create a big, bold
lie, something so outrageous no one could possibly
believe it was made up. “Also, so egregious
that if they could get people
to believe it, it would be totally damning.” Rule No. 3, wrap that lie
around a kernel of truth. “Propaganda is most
effective when there’s a little bit of truth in it.” “The most successful
operations of that kind contain some truthful element
so that the disinformation is eventually
accepted as a whole.” Rule 4, conceal
your hands, making it seem like the story
came from somewhere else. “Nobody was searching about
the origin, how it started, who published the story first. This was, of course,
a method then repeated again and again.” Rule No. 5, find
yourself a useful idiot. “Useful idiots are essentially
people they would identify who unwittingly will take
the Kremlin’s message and push it into
the target audience, the foreign population
they want to reach.” “They were idiots in that they
didn’t see what was obvious, and they were very useful.” And what happens when those
pesky truth-seekers try and debunk your fake story? Well, Rule 6 has you covered. “Deny, deny, deny. Even if the truth is obvious,
yet deny, deny, deny.” “They will bluster
their way out of things, because they’ve realized
that our attention span is quite short.” And finally — and this is
a really important one- play the long game. “Russia’s willing to
play a long game, put large resources into things
that may not bear fruit for many years to come.” “The accumulation
of these operations over a long period
of time will result in a major political impact.” “And if you think about
it as a drip on a rock, today the drip doesn’t
have any impact. If that drip hits for a long
period of time — years — there will be a
hole in the rock. And they know that.” These seven simple rules
were a powerful weapon for the KGB, and they
applied them again and again and again. But then something
came along which changed the game entirely. “The internet has brought
anonymity, ubiquity and immediacy in
combinations that we didn’t have in the
era of telex machines, and shortwave radio, and
rotary printing presses.” “During the time
of my involvement, one operation can reach
maybe 100,000 people if the paper had a
nice circulation. Now that’s ridiculous.” And with the
internet’s help, Russia has scored some big wins. The explosion at the Louisiana chemical
plant that was caused by ISIS. The deadly phosphorous
leak in American Falls, Idaho, and the list goes on and on. There’s the claim
MH17 was shot down by Ukrainian fighter jets. The thousands of Americans
who supposedly petitioned to return Alaska to Russia. There’s the queen warning
of a third world war. The Syrian massacre
that never happened. Sweden adopting the
Islamic State flag. A made-up attack on
a U.S. Air Force base. Roy Moore, Brexit,
immigration. And in stories that will
sound eerily familiar, there’s the claims the
U.S. was behind the Ebola outbreak and the Zika virus. From Black Lives Matter,
to the gun lobby, wherever there’s been
a division in society, Russia has used
disinformation to pry it open, sowing chaos across
the political spectrum. And now that you know the
rules of the playbook, you can see how effective
a weapon it really is. Pizza, anyone? To understand what
really happened here, we need to go back to March
19, 2016, and just here, actually, Washington, D.C. This is the time and
the place where hackers got into the Gmail account
of Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. “So the Podesta emails were
the information, the power, the Pizzagate conspiracy.” And you can guess who
was behind the hacking of those emails. “Tied to the Russian
intelligence services.” Big surprise. In fact, we now know the
hacker worked directly for the G.R.U., Russia’s C.I.A. The divisive 2016 election
was the perfect crack to wedge open with
disinformation and, well, the lies
don’t get much bigger than a presidential candidate
running a child sex ring from the basement
of a pizza parlor. The playbook says you should
mix little bits of truth into your lie and
John Podesta’s emails provided loads of
factual details to weave into the story. Comet Pizza’s a real
place, and there were emails between Podesta
and the restaurant’s owner. Rule 4 says you need a
way to conceal your hand. Well, six months later — “WikiLeaks posted more than
2,000 additional emails from Hillary Clinton’s
campaign chair, John Podesta.” Using WikiLeaks
was a genius idea, helping to keep its
hackers in the shadows. Meanwhile, Russia
continues to push the story with fringe social
media accounts, all run from the Internet
Research Agency. “Over 50,000 accounts
communicated automatically and in synchronization
we’ve never seen in the history
of social media.” Meanwhile, there were no
shortage of useful idiots who were duped into
backing up the lie. “Pizzagate is real. The question is,
how real is it? What is it? Something’s going on. Something’s being covered up.” Now, the story should be
laughably easy to debunk. For a start, the pizza
restaurant in question doesn’t even have a basement. But there’s a rule for that. “Deny, deny, deny.” So when intelligence
exposed Russia’s WikiLeaks connection, WikiLeaks and
RT knew exactly what to do. “We can say that the
Russian government is not the source.” “Despite there being no
evidence to prove this, Isn’t it nice to have
your own TV channel? “If I had to
rewrite RT’s slogan, it’d be question
more, answer less.” “80 percent of their coverage is
actually excellent coverage. And because 80 percent of
the time they’re doing quality journalism, when
20 percent of the time they’re not, then it enables people to
say, well, no, look at this. We are journalists. We have policies. We know what we’re doing.” With days to go
before the election, the story had taken
on a life of its own, the magnificent long game
beginning to pay off. That said, even
Russia couldn’t have imagined what came next. “A shooting in a D.C.
pizza restaurant — ” Two insane lies,
30 years apart. One story took six
years to take hold, the other barely six months. But they both
share the same DNA, the same unmistakable
trace of active measures and the same goal, to shift
the world’s balance of power by turning Western
countries on themselves. We’re at war, and we’ve
got absolutely no idea. “Those were Russians.” “They were not Russians. I don’t go with the Russians.” And we’re facing a
sophisticated weapon designed to bring down democracies
from the inside, just as the KGB envisioned
all those years ago. “Fighting war on
the battlefield is the most stupid
and primitive way of fighting a war. The highest art of warfare
is not to fight at all, but to subvert
anything of value in your enemy’s
country, anything. Put white against black,
old against young, I don’t know, wealth
against poor, and so on. Doesn’t matter. As long as it
disturbs society, as long as it cuts the
moral fiber of a nation, it’s good.” “The virus that
causes AIDS leaked.” “An assault rifle targeting
a Washington, D.C. spot — ” “And then you just
take this country when everything is
subverted, when the country’s disoriented and confused. When it is demoralized
and then destabilized, then the crisis will come.”

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