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How Russia pioneered “fake news”

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President Donald Trump claims he coined the phrase “fake news.” (He didn’t.) But the actual art of “fake news” was pioneered by the Russians in the 1990s and 2000s, and they used it to try to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election.

This is the argument Yale historian Timothy Snyder makes in his new book, The Road to Unfreedom. According to Snyder, it was Russian leaders who first mastered “fake news” in the digital era, and they did it as part of a broader strategy to disorient their own society. That strategy goes something like this: Use the internet and TV to flood society with misinformation, demonize the institutions charged with uncovering facts, and then exploit the confusion that results.

This, Snyder argues, is how Russian oligarchs in the Putin era control citizens: They cultivate enough chaos so people become cynical about public life and, eventually, about truth itself. In the 2010s, Russia began to deploy these techniques abroad as a means of destabilizing Western countries. In Trump, they found a particularly useful tool, someone they could use to stoke America’s internal divisions and subvert democracy.

I spoke with Snyder about how this happened and why he thinks the great triumph of Russian foreign policy in the 21st century is its ability to create chaos in Western democracies using the tools it perfected on its own citizens.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You argue in the book that Russia mastered the art of “fake news” and misinformation long before anyone else, and that that’s the main reason why they’ve been so influential in a world governed by the internet and social media.

Timothy Snyder

Russia doesn’t really change; the world changes around Russia in a way that helps Russia. We tend to think that the key to power is economic and technological strength, but that’s not the whole picture. Russia’s economy is not big and they don’t really innovate technologically, but they’ve always led the world in understanding the psychology of power.Psychological warfare is what they’ve done best going all the way back to the Bolsheviks.

Throughout the Cold War, Russia was always better than us when it came to penetrating their enemies and breaking them down from within. Rather than smashing things overtly, they would work from behind the scenes to cast doubt on things. They’d insert their people into enemy organizations and slowly create chaos from inside. They’ve always excelled at turning people against each other.

Russia lost the Cold War because the Cold War was decided by economics and technology; it was a material competition. But after the Cold War, we moved into a different world, a world defined by the internet, and that’s a much more psychological world. The techniques they’ve been honing for decades are much more powerful in this new digital world, where emotion dominates and everyone is connected and there is so much information floating around. This is a world of information warfare, and that suits Russia’s strengths.

Sean Illing

The other thing that seems important to understand is how Russian leaders adapted these techniques in the 1990s and 2000s to police their own citizens. They flooded their society with misinformation, then they attacked the institutions responsible for finding the truth, and then they capitalized on the confusion that followed.

Timothy Snyder

That’s a great summary, so I’ll try to lay out some of the details. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, there was a consolidation of various oligarchical clans in Russia, and it’s the Putin clan that emerged on top. And one of the first things Putin did was transform the information and media landscape.

He marginalized print media in favor of television, which he can more easily control. Second, he got rid of local news entirely, so that news is exclusively about larger themes of national greatness or injustices against Russia. He then unified television media so that there are five or six channels that are all peddling different stories that essentially transmit the same pro-Russia, pro-Putin message but in confusing and contradictory ways.

Sean Illing

And what’s the message?

Timothy Snyder

That you can’t really trust any of the information. That the whole world is conspiring against Putin and Russia. The real message isn’t that Russia is great or that any particular ideology is great; it’s that you can’t trust anyone or anything. There’s no reason to believe in anything. There is no truth. Your institutions are bogus.

Sean Illing

We’re now in a world in which information warfare is one of the primary modes of warfare, and you say that Russia, more than anyone else, is uniquely prepared for this kind of conflict.

Timothy Snyder

Americans often qualify the word “war” with “information” or “propaganda,” and the implication is that it’s not real war if it doesn’t involve combat, but that’s not how the Russians see it. War is about breaking the will of the enemy, and historically, combat was the means to that end. But you can break a country’s will without combat, and that’s how Russia uses misinformation.

You can see this in the development of their military doctrine and in the writings of the thinkers who most influenced Putin’s circle. They reached the conclusion that they could damage Western countries, and America in particular, without combat, and the internet was their main weapon.

Sean Illing

And they were able to do it because they understood the moral and cultural and political fault lines in this country?

Timothy Snyder

You don’t need a PhD in American studies to understand America’s basic conflicts. Race is our most divisive issue; it’s always been our most divisive issue. So Russia’s goal was simple enough: Use social media and the internet to push those buttons as much as possible and create more anger and polarization. And not only on race but on every contentious issue they could find.

Sean Illing

This seems like a good place to pivot to the Trump-Russia connection. You spend a whole chapter laying out why Russia saw Trump as the perfect vehicle for their cyberwar against America. Can you explain why that is?

Timothy Snyder

Obviously, there are numerous financial ties between Trump and Russia, and that’s a big reason why he was targeted. But they also understood that Trump’s weakness is that he’s not really a successful businessman. His strength is that he knows how to play one on TV, which are two very different things and two completely different skill sets.

But Trump is perfectly capable of playing a successful businessman on TV. And so he becomes this character in the American mind, and it’s that character that gives him the legitimacy to do things in domestic American politics and to propose himself as a presidential candidate.

His actual failures don’t matter; it doesn’t matter that Russian money kept him afloat all those years. What matters is that America is dominated by celebrity culture, and that’s a weakness the Russians could — and did — exploit.

Sean Illing

You make a distinction between what you call “the politics of inevitability” and “the politics of eternity.” What is this, and why does it matter?

Timothy Snyder

One of the premises of this book is that we live in a world defined by ideas whether we realize it or not. And one idea, which I call the politics of inevitability, basically says that history is over, that liberal democracy is on the march and has essentially won. But this idea has clearly turned out not to be true.

The risk, however, is that we fall into what I call “the politics of eternity,” which says there isn’t really a future, that all the good things were in the past. And the reason why we don’t have these good things anymore is because of other people, usually internal enemies.

Russia has succeeded in building a regime that embodies the politics of eternity. No one has any idea what will happen in the Russian future. In fact, you can’t really talk about it, because you can’t really talk about Putin not being ruler. Instead, all you hear in Russia are fears about the West or fears about religious or ethnic minorities corrupting Russian society.

This is more or less what Trump has done in America. His whole vision, “Make America Great Again,” was about looking into the past and creating fear about immigrants and minorities. So he pushed vague promises about restoring the conditions of the past that his voters remember fondly.

The irony is that Trump insists the American dream is dead, and he has a point. But what he’s doing is turning this into a kind of zombie nightmare, where he’s actually going to make inequality worse and then blame other people for it, which will only make things worse.

Sean Illing

I walked away from your book feeling even more convinced that we’re trapped in the dynamic you just laid out, where more suffering leads to more resentment, which in turn produces more bad policies, and the whole cycle just perpetuates itself.

Timothy Snyder

The book is superficially gloomy, but it’s also deeply hopeful. I talk about all these points of crisis — in Russia, in Ukraine, in Europe, in America. But in each case, I’m also trying to point to a specific political virtue that is being challenged and that could be restored. And I’m actually trying to open up the conversation to that.

I think one of the things that’s gone wrong in our conversation, and one of the problems with the politics of inevitability, is that people think, “Well, everything’s going in the right direction,” which means they don’t have to think about what “right” means. You don’t have to actually ask yourself what’s good, what’s desirable. You can tell yourself that those conversations don’t matter because history’s just going to follow its own course.

The fundamental premise of the book is that we have to see ourselves as we are and where we are. We can’t assume that the system is going to correct itself. But we also can’t assume that we’re doomed. Both of those are a trap.The illusion of certain progress and certain doom are traps. We have to see ourselves right where we are.

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