By Rick Stengel
I was a magazine guy.
After eight years as managing editor of Time, I left at the end of 2013 to become under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs. It’s a fancy title, but that job is one of the few in Washington that’s tailored for someone with a media background like me. After I was nominated, some of my colleagues joked that I was now “head of U.S. propaganda,” but I thought of myself instead as the chief marketing officer of brand America. I figured I’d be spending a lot of my time combating America’s negative image in the Muslim world—and I did—but then the Russian annexation of Crimea happened in early 2014. What I saw Russia do online and in social media around this grave violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty was a revelation to me—and nothing short of a trial run for what they did to manipulate our presidential election in 2016. Few Americans realized it back then, but we were already in a global information war with Russia.
But some did know.
On a Saturday morning after I’d been in the job for two months—about four weeks after Vladimir Putin’s troops invaded Crimea—I got a call from the State Department operations center saying they had the secretary on the line. Only it wasn’t Secretary John Kerry, my boss, but former Secretary Hillary Clinton. I had known, liked and admired Clinton for a long time, and I assumed she was calling belatedly to say congratulations. I was wrong. After a perfunctory hello, she launched right into it: We’re losing the information war with Russia. She urged me to stand up a much stronger and more robust messaging machine to compete with the firehose of Russian propaganda and disinformation that was besmirching America’s image and undermining democracy around the world. “They’re using the old techniques of repeating lies over and over but doing so on 21st century platforms,” she said. You need to fact-check what they are saying and expose Russian disinformation in real time, she continued. We need to do much more. I remember how she ended the call: “The State Department is still issuing press releases while Putin is rewriting history.”
She was right.
But it was still new to me. Even though I had been in media all my life, it wasn’t until after Crimea that I saw the power and effectiveness of Russian propaganda and disinformation. In the information war, as one U.S. three-star told me, “The Russians have the big battalions.”
It all began with reports of “little green men” — at least that’s how TV news described the masked men in unmarked uniforms who skulked into Crimea in March 2014.
In fact, they were “Spetsnaz,” Russian special operations forces. At the time, Putin vehemently denied they were Russian troops. He claimed they were patriotic local militias defending the rights of ethnic Russians in Crimea.
This, of course, was an unblinking lie. Within days, Putin had illegally annexed a piece of Ukraine into the Russian federation and copped to the fact that they were indeed Russian soldiers. The White House condemned the violation of Crimea’s sovereignty and began the process of imposing sanctions on Russia. At the time, I thought that at the very least we should marshal social media against this historic trespass. Some folks made fun of what they called #hashtag diplomacy, but heck, it was something. I started tweeting against Putin and Russia’s actions and urged everyone in the State Department with a social media account to do the same—”The unshakeable principle guiding events must be that the people of #Ukraine determine their own future.”
Not exactly fire-breathing words. At the same time, we started a small social media group called the Ukraine Task Force to rebut Russian lies in real time. And then a funny thing happened: I started getting dozens and then hundreds of tweets calling me a fascist propagandist and a hypocrite and much, much worse. And almost all of them had terrible spelling and worse grammar. In addition, there were tweets from scantily clad young women who, in syntactically challenged English mixed with Cyrillic, inquired about my political views and breathlessly told me theirs. I received screeds about Russian babies being kidnapped in Crimea, unrepentant Nazis who were behind the protests in downtown Kiev, and how the CIA had created the AIDS virus.
When I published a diplomatic note on the State Department site accusing Russia of an “intense campaign of disinformation” and referred to Russia Today as “a propaganda bullhorn,” I was attacked on-air by RT and in an editorial by its editor-in-chief accusing me of cramming dozens of falsehoods into a few hundred words. (You can always tell what the Russians are doing because they accuse you of doing the same thing.) I had never watched RT before, and soon discovered that it was an often entertaining mélange of fact and fiction depicting a toxic America riven by corruption and racism featuring experts without expertise spinning wild conspiracy stories. RT stories suggested it was the democratic right of the people of Crimea to be part of Russia and that the U.S. had fomented the color revolutions in Ukraine and the Russian periphery.
I hate to tell you, President Trump, but RT was calling American media fake news long before you did.
All of this was eye-opening and a bit bewildering, and now seems sadly familiar to Americans who saw a similar pattern of information warfare during the 2016 election.
But this is not new for the Russians. The annexation of Crimea, the soft invasion of eastern Ukraine and the social media tsunami around these events are all part of a long-term KGB military strategy known as “active measures”—a bland term for the weaponization of information to achieve strategic goals. The idea goes back to Soviet days, but the modern tools of social media have made it far easier and more effective. After all, you don’t have to pay spies to plant false stories in American newspapers anymore—you can do it yourself from a …read more
Read more here: What Hillary Knew About Putin’s Propaganda Machine