So the FBI and Homeland Security just released a report saying Russian spy agencies were responsible for hacking all those internal emails from the Democratic National Committee. Julian Assange, on the other hand, is 1,000 percent sure Russia had nothing to do with that. Other smart people without cotton candy hair and pending rape charges also doubt Russian involvement. It's one of those confusing debates that even the beardiest of computer nerds disagree on. So what's going on here? Did Russia hack the 2016 election?
I struggle to work my smartphone's alarm some mornings, so no, I don't know if Russia "hacked" the election. But they sure as hell found a backdoor entrance to hack our democracy. They didn't need an army of Mr. Robots -- just an army of writers who knew how to generate clickable content. See, almost half of us get our news from links we see shared on Facebook. Which is why, during the election, articles like this flooded our social media like the banks of the Ganges:
This screengrab is from Russia Today, a Kremlin-run news agency. The Kremlin is basically Russia's White House, which makes RT a Putin-run news agency. He's using RT and a family of similar sites as the stage for a gritty reboot of Soviet-era tactics.
Here's a quick history lesson: In the 1960s and '70s, the Soviet state paper, Pravda, would go hunting for anti-American stories in fringe newspapers around the world and publish their own coverage of those stories. Usually, it didn't work. But one time, they printed an article alleging that the CIA was behind the Kennedy assassination, and that shit took off like a wildfire wearing Air Jordans.
As an adorable little kid, Vladimir Putin was a huge nerd for the Soviet intelligence service, and he eventually joined the KGB in 1975. There, he would become familiar with the KGB's attempts to manipulate American media. And once he was president, Putin quickly put the Russian press under government control. Russia had only been not-the-Soviet-Union for a decade at this point, so their free press was as well-developed as a Bond girl's personality. It's not super impressive that he was able to take control so easily. What's impressive is the influence being gained on global turf.
That's an article by Sputnik, another Putin-owned news site, from back during the election. It's alleging that Google manipulated search results to make Hillary seem like less of a monster. I found it being shared from one gigantic left-wing Facebook group to another gigantic left-wing Facebook group. And here's a Russia Today article I found shared on Reddit's largest pro-Donald group, r/the_donald, featuring famous right-wing fuckwind Milo Yiannopolis:
Both of these pieces of content were squirted out onto social media orifices and served the same goal: attacking Hillary Clinton. The first piece targets angry left-wing Sanders supporters who already felt the primary was rigged against Bernie. The second piece is aimed at young right-wing voters who really think we should bomb more Mosques but are basically cool with gay people.
I'm not going to spend the rest of the article debating the validity of these stories. They could both be 100-percent true, and it wouldn't change the fact that they're evidence of what might be the most savvy propaganda operation of the internet age. In fact, the Kremlin's propaganda works so well because many of the articles aren't outright false.
Most of them are based on a grain or three of truth. But when you run through a bunch of headlines, it's not hard to see what messages the Kremlin wants to get out ...
If you saw any one of those headlines on your Facebook feed, you probably wouldn't notice anything weird. But when you look at them together, you can clearly see RT pushing the "Russia doesn't even know how to hack, you guys" story as hard as they can. And there's clearly coordination going on between Kremlin-controlled sites. Notice RT's headline about Israel getting blasted by Human Rights Watch. I visited Sputnik News the same day, and found this right on their front page:
Again, I am not commenting on the contents of any of these articles. I'm not even entirely sure why the Russian government would care about pushing that particular piece of news so aggressively on our social media feeds. But there's no question that they're doing this at Putin's behest. Fuck, just look at this banner ad on Sputnik:
This was happening before the election. It's happening now. And we really don't know how far it goes. For example, I ran into this in on the feed for a large Bernie-backing Facebook group:
The article (which neglects to note the 2,000+ civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes) was published by the Strategic Culture Foundation, a Russian "online journal" which, hm, sure seems to have a familiar theme to its articles.
And hey, here's another article on the Feel the Bern feed about how everyone else is totally jelly of Russia's awesome Syria policy.
Is The Duran Russian propaganda? I don't know! But the website "Is This Propaganda or Not?" includes The Duran on its list of "websites that reliably echo Russian propaganda." There are a lot of legitimate critiques of "Propornot," namely that it's a group of unnamed self-proclaimed experts and thus kinda shady. But The Duran is also a little shady: their domain is registered in Panama but they claim to be based in the Republic of Cyprus. The writer who penned their response to PropOrNot is based out of Moscow. Let's see what's on the front page of their website right now...
This was published on Russia Today the same day.
To summarize, the Kremlin trickles down to RT and Sputnik, which trickles down to sites like The Duran and Strategic-Culture. Some of these sites are actual propaganda organs, others are just honestly reporting on stories they find compelling. But all those articles eventually find their way into various Facebook groups, the last sorry link on the human centipede of misinformation.
I don't know if Russia hacked the Democratic Party. But they've definitely hacked America. Turns out, humans are even easier to exploit than Windows Explorer.
Robert Evans has a much less serious book about how drugs, partying and douchebaggery built civilization. You can buy A Brief History of Vice now!
One of our most popular episodes from 2016 was when we invited Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark from 'My Favorite Murder' to talk about some of the best true-crime stories out there. So successful, in fact, that we're resurrecting it (get it?) for a part two! Metal Fang, the Strangling Executioner and the murderer living in the attic just weren't enough. So Jack O'Brien, Dan O'Brien and the Cracked staff welcome Karen and Georgia back for another creepy hour of serial killers and urban legends that are bound to make you terrified to go outside or talk to a stranger or do anything.
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