Did the Russians ‘Meddle’ Just for Clicks?
After an uneventful Senate intelligence update, Max Blumenthal unpacks the latest on Russiagate and raises the possibility that alleged Russian attempts to sow social media ‘chaos’ were just troll-farm clickbait
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. You’ve been listening to senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner give a briefing on the progress of their probe into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. election. They said that they interviewed more than 100 people. They’ve pored over more than 100,000 documents. They said that they’re not ready to share their conclusions yet because this probe is ongoing, but they did say that the probe has expanded. They’re now looking at the development that has dominated headlines for the last few weeks, which is the alleged Russian use of social media.
They said that, in regards to the Steele memo, which is this infamous dossier prepared by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, they said that they’ve hit a dead end with that. The Steele memo made a lot of salacious claims about Donald Trump. It said that the Russians have compromising information on him, including lewd sexual behavior inside Russia that they could use possibly to blackmail Donald Trump. The Stele memo’s been taken very seriously in the U.S. The senators said that they’ve hit a wall when it comes to the Steele memo, unable to confirm its claims.
They talked about pressuring social media companies, especially Twitter and Facebook, saying that they were initially disappointed with the results that they turned up when it comes to alleged Russian social media influence, but they said that they hope the companies will continue to cooperate with them. Recently representatives of Twitter, Facebook, and Google have all come before Congress. Facebook has faced the most heat. In a moment we’re going to be joined by Baynard Woods, who was at the briefing, and Max Blumenthal, and what’s interesting about the Facebook story is that initially when Facebook was asked to investigate allegations of Russian social media accounts, they couldn’t find anything. It only was after prodding from Senator Mark Warner, who we just heard from there, that Facebook came back and said that they have identified these 3000 social media accounts that … Or no, sorry, they’ve identified 3000 ads from Russian-linked social media accounts that were used to influence the election. Also, though, they just said this week that most of the ads aired after the election, which would be a strange way to influence its outcome.
In terms of alleged hacking of state electoral systems, they said that there’s no proof that any votes were changed as a result of alleged hacking. They also didn’t outline any proof that there even was Russian hacking of state systems, but what they suggested was, on that angle, that the hackers, whoever they were, were trying to at least test the vulnerabilities of electoral systems. But that, like almost every single other issue or claim in Russiagate, has not been accompanied with any evidence yet. There have been reports that Russian hackers tried to penetrate state election systems, but already in fact, in the last week, at least three states have said that that’s not true. That’s part of a pattern in Russiagate, as we’ve been covering here extensively on The Real News, of claims being made about Russia and then the stories slowly and quietly being retracted.
We’re going to be joined soon, again, by Max Blumenthal and Baynard Woods, who was at the briefing. I’ve got Baynard on with us right now, joining us from the briefing.
BAYNARD WOODS: All right.
AARON MATÉ: Thanks for joining us.
BAYNARD WOODS: Oh yeah.
AARON MATÉ: Your quick takeaways from the briefing we just heard.
BAYNARD WOODS: I mean, there wasn’t a lot except for talking about how thorough the investigation has been. Sorry, if you can still hear, it’s getting loud in here as everyone is packing up. They didn’t reveal really any new information that we didn’t know at all, although I think that it was interesting when Senator Warner was talking about efforts to … Working to try to work on Americans’ ability to deal with this information better. Sorry, people keep walking past me and I keep having to move my arm here. You there, Aaron?
AARON MATÉ: Yeah.
BAYNARD WOODS: All right.
AARON MATÉ: It’s true. It was interesting to hear them say that they’re not ready to reach any conclusions yet. I was struck by them mentioning Germany and France as evidence, or as potential evidence, of Russian meddling elsewhere, because actually in both Germany and France there was widespread news reports about alleged Russian hacking and disinformation there. But then nothing happened. In Germany, nothing happened. Here, that was taken as a mystery as being why nothing happened in Germany with Russian meddling. Maybe it’s true that nothing actually happened. With France, there was some hacking of Macron’s campaign, but afterwards the head of French cybersecurity said that, actually, it could have been anybody, that there’s no proof it was Russians. Baynard-
BAYNARD WOODS: Over here, I mean, the amount of dark money involved in our elections I think also has made it much harder for them to be able to tell where this … I mean, we are being manipulated all of the time to think one way or another, or vote one way or another, more than in many other places because of the way our election laws work in the first place.
AARON MATÉ: Right. Baynard, stand by. I think we have Max Blumenthal on the line. Max, can you hear me?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I’m on the line.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Max, thank you for joining us. We’ve just gotten this long-awaited update from the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, senators Richard Burr and Mark Warner. They talked about conducting more than 100 interviews from people all over the world, they said, accessing over 100,000 documents. They talked about the probe expanding now to look at social media and the alleged Russian use of Facebook especially. They used the word chaos a lot. I took down some notes. Senator Burr talked about the Russian goal being to create chaos at every level, and also saying that you can’t walk away from this and not believe that Russia is not trying to create chaos. Your thoughts, Max?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, the reason they’re using the language of chaos … We’ve got a ton of background noise there. It’s pretty distracting.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, I’m going to ask the control room just to fade down the background noise from the briefing. There we go, good, so we can hear Max. All right, Max, go ahead.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Sounds like we’re in like a Hot Shoppes cafeteria. Anyway, yeah, the chaos narrative is one of the shabbiest narratives, and it’s designed to ascribe intentionality to these supposed Russian Facebook ads, which actually have no clear ideological line, and some of them actually do relate to puppies. There were puppy ads. The puppy is a clear agent of Putin’s chaos machine.
AARON MATÉ: Wait, Max, explain that. You’re saying that one of the Russian ads contained a puppy?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: It was photographs of puppies. There was another ad that we were told, and I know this will disturb a lot of Real News people who are afraid of black women, I guess we’re supposed to be afraid of black women if we think that this ad is troubling, but it shows a black woman dry firing a rifle. We haven’t seen that ad, but according to the Senate and House Intelligence Committee, through their lackeys in the media, this ad was deployed to spread racial division and chaos in America. I personally am not afraid of black women, and I don’t think images of them with guns is divisive, any more than images of white people with guns is divisive, but apparently Russian didn’t sufficiently cater to the fears of white people.
We have been told that ads supposedly promoting Black Lives Matter events, or not even ads but fake Facebook accounts, like the one so-called Russian Facebook account Blacktivist, promoting events in Ferguson and Baltimore that were protesting police violence were, according to CNN’s Dylan Byers, who’s one of the channels for the House and Senate Intelligence Committee, that this was an attempt to undermine democracy, which means that if you protested what happened to Freddie Gray you’re undermining democracy. Then there’s the issue of when the ads were deployed and where they were deployed. According to Facebook, 50% of all of these supposedly Russian ads, 56%, appeared after the election, so they had no effect on the election, hence the kind of chaos narrative, like, “Russia’s just deploying these ads all over the place to spread chaos, and we just don’t know what to do in America.” They don’t have any ideological line, so we’re confused, and it’s getting chaotic here because otherwise, as Morgan Freeman said, we’ve been a shining democracy for 241 years.
AARON MATÉ: Just to explain that, Max is quoting there from a video from the newly-formed Committee to Investigate Russia that brings together Hollywood liberals like Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman with neocons, and Morgan Freeman starred in the advertisement, and Max, to quote Max, Max called it, “Morgan Freeman’s worst role since Driving Miss Daisy.”
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, and you know, the chaos narrative operates on the premise that American news audiences don’t, or social media consumers don’t have agency, so they’re easily duped. That anything racially related spreads racial division, especially if it promotes black civil rights. It operates on the premise that whatever is left of American democracy is too weak to resist something like 3000 supposedly Russian Facebook ads. It operates on the premise that these ads were actually taken out by Russian operatives from the Kremlin, from the Federal Security Bureau or GRU, the military intelligence network. There’s no proof of that.
Before I get to the question of evidence, it’s important to go back to the statistics I was citing that Facebook released. According to Facebook, again, 56% of the ads appeared after the election, and 25% of these 3000 ads they provided to the Intelligence Committee were never seen by anyone. At best, we have about 1000 ads that appeared before the election that were supposedly seen by someone. Now, let’s stack that up. Oh, and then most of the ads appeared or were directed at social media consumers in non-swing states, so you could take the swing state ads and stack that up against billions of dollars in advertising from both presidential candidates, and the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t even campaign in Wisconsin in the critical days.
CNN just dropped another piece. Dylan Byers was on the byline. It was obviously filtered out by the House or Senate Intelligence Committee, and it said that Russia ran Facebook ads specifically targeting Wisconsin and Michigan. Didn’t say when, didn’t say what the ads were, and I don’t think they could even establish that they were before the election, but by doing that, and it was clearly done by the Democratic side on the Intelligence Committee, they were trying to explain away Hillary Clinton’s defeat, and this is the shabbiest, most pathetic attempt. Russian Facebook ads was trending on Twitter last night because the Hillary bots were all latching onto this idea that Facebook ads had swung the election for Trump, and not the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t campaign in these two critical states and ran the worst campaign in history. You actually saw her spokesman Brian Fallon, who is the flak for this historic failure, blaming the Las Vegas massacre, on Twitter, on Russia, because there was a meeting between an NRA official and a Russian official in 2015.
AARON MATÉ: Max, I’ll read that tweet. This is Brian Fallon. He was the national spokesperson for the 2016 Clinton campaign, and he tweets out a link to an article about that meeting that Max just mentioned, and he says, “The NRA spent $30 million to elect Trump, standing by him after other GOP groups left him. Why? The answer may be in Moscow.” He’s suggesting that, as other Republicans were abandoning Trump during the campaign, the NRA stood by him, and that is due possibly to the Kremlin’s influence. Again, this is the national spokesperson for Hillary Clinton. Max, we’ll come back you, but I want to go back to Baynard, who’s at that Senate briefing. Baynard, you were there with a lot of journalists. What’s your impression of their level of credulity when it comes to this, as Max has just been pointing out, a story with a lot of holes in it. What was your impression of how seriously they’re taking this issue?
BAYNARD WOODS: A wide range of people from the sort of mainstream press that I think generally have a great deal of credulity in most of this narrative and many others. Then, you know, people like Corn with Mother Jones, who’s definitely very seriously committed to the issue but takes it in a much different direction of really wanting to nail down the Trump administration with its attempts to collude with Russia, and Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. I think it’s a strange room, and in general at these, you know that they’re going to call on the front rows with CBS and whatever, and so you’re going to get the CBS view in the kinds of questions that are going to be asked.
AARON MATÉ: Baynard, in terms of what we heard today, what, to you, was new? Something that you hadn’t heard before when it comes to the progress of this probe.
BAYNARD WOODS: There really was nothing new at all, except for the strange 80 copies of War and Peace on their chart, which I assume is what they’re equating the 100,000 documents to, or that Tolstoy was involved-
AARON MATÉ: Wait, explain that, explain that. Wait, wait, Baynard, explain that. There was copies of War and Peace?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Tolstoy was Russian. Tolstoy was Russian.
BAYNARD WOODS: On their chart, there’s a line that says, “80-plus copies of War and Peace,” which is presumably what the 100,000 documents are. But it’s a weird thing to just put on your chart, and yeah, it makes it seem like it’s saying that there’s some kind of relation between Tolstoy and the current, you know, and Putin.
AARON MATÉ: Oh, I see, so they have enough material to fill 80 copies of War and Peace.
BAYNARD WOODS: Presumably, though it just says 80-plus copies of War and Peace on the poster, so that’s presumably what they’re trying to say. But yeah, it’s a sort of odd choice to make there. Could have been Ulysses.
AARON MATÉ: Max Blumenthal?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I just know that Tolstoy was of Russian genetic origin, and anything that’s Russian is suspect, genetically speaking. Any media that derives from Russia is immediately propaganda. No, but I didn’t see the War on Peace motif, so I can’t actually comment, but listening to the questions, I mean, you just heard what I’ve always called the kind of bootlicking beltway media that trusts their intelligence services, even as this story falls apart. I mean, we saw the story about Russian scanning of election machines just fall apart, state after state, and the Huffington Post and a host of other outlets have not corrected their stories yet. They reported that 21 states had their voting machines scanned by Russia. In Texas-
AARON MATÉ: Max, listen. Do you know who else reported that just now? Senator Mark Warner of the Intelligence Committee, he also made a reference to that same story as if it was true.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, I mean, we keep seeing these discredited stories be repeated after they’re corrected. There’s also the story you mentioned earlier about Emmanuel Macron and MacronLeaks, the French cyber intelligence service. Basically, the French intelligence service has said that Russia had nothing to do with that. It could have been anyone, which actually undermines the entire hacking narrative around the DNC because it was said to be the same APT that hacked Macron’s emails. But you see pundits from Peter Beinart to the New York Times repeat that story again and again, that Emmanuel Macron was hacked by Russian intelligence operatives, and then we never heard, as far as I can tell, and maybe Baynard can correct me, no reporter asked Warner or Burr how they knew that Russian operatives were behind these Facebook ads. That’s a question that I don’t think they’re going to be able to answer. There’s almost no means of attributing it.
What it appears to be is there may have been a Russian troll farm that was paid by a private client to attract visitors by creating, paying for basically three-dollar ads on Facebook that revolve around, sometimes around political issues but also puppy photos that cater to niche audiences and just generate clicks, and they had nothing to do with any chaos agent deployed by the Kremlin and the FSB. But this can never be established by the Intelligence Committee, and the press just simply doesn’t ask.
AARON MATÉ: If that’s true, then basically we’re going to have had this year-long scandal, this talk of our society being thrown into chaos, because of a Russian click farm. Click farms are very common, it’s not just coming from Russia-
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I would put my money on that.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah, yeah. I think you’re onto something, Max. Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank both my guests, The Real News correspondent Baynard Woods, who was at the Senate briefing, and journalist Max Blumenthal of AlterNet’s Grayzone Project. He co-hosts the excellent podcast Moderate Rebels, and you should go check that out. Thank you to you both, and thank you for joining us on The Real News.