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Our Post-Truth World: What Russian Active Measures Reveal About America

Our Post-Truth World: What Russian Active Measures Reveal About America

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Video featuring Dr. Matthew Crosston
American Military University (AMU) Doctoral Faculty Member

In this vlog for In Homeland Security, Dr. Matthew Crosston discusses the new phenomenon of ‘post-truth’ – defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Dr. Crosston examines the left- and right-leaning trolls that played an influential role during the 2016 U.S. presidential election and comments on Russia’s alleged involvement.

Here is a full transcript of Dr. Crosston’s video:

I think there are some important things to focus on as we move into the 2020 election that stem from what we were worried about as having already taken place in 2016.

We think that there were major Russian intervention initiatives – Russians call them “Russian active measures” that were engaged in 2016 and we worry that they’re continuing to do that and intending to do even more, if they can, in 2020.

I think the two biggest points to emphasize, that do not get emphasized in the United States all that much, is the precursor events that – at least in the Russian perspective happened towards the Russian Federation – that we just don’t talk about. We talk about 2016 as if it was a Russian action, but to the Russian perception it was … well to be honest, they still deny that they did anything, so (technically) they say they engaged in no such activity at all. The data shows us otherwise.

But what’s more important to me is to look backwards – almost a decade – and you can see a progressive advance of Hillary Clinton’s statements and actions in terms of being a state senator from New York, the Secretary of State under President Obama, and then as the leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president, where she absolutely took initiatives that the Russians regarded as being very anti-Russian. Even to a point where, in 2013, Putin (at a major press conference – global press conference) said directly into the microphone, “Well, this is what America does; America every once in a while likes to puff up its chest and act like it owns the planet and it wants everyone to know that it owns the planet. It interferes in our affairs just so that we understand who has what role and when.”

A Russian Reaction

So, I always I always imagine that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin looks in the aftermath of 2016, and we ask ourselves why did Russia do this. Why did they initiate these actions? And, I swear he must be just befuddled because [he’s thinking] ‘like I told you directly into a microphone why I felt, how I felt, why I thought you did stuff to us first.’ So, it’s not a Russian action; it’s a Russian reaction, if he was ever able to tell the truth into the microphone. Technically, they still deny any wrongdoing whatsoever. But, if we ignore that, I think they have justified foreign policy grounds for why they did what they did and why they would prefer Trump over Hillary in terms of being president.

The second thing is the data itself. We emphasize that this data was always about Trump trying to help Trump (help his campaign) hurt Hillary’s campaign, but when you actually look at the technological data – what we see is a very even distribution between left-leaning trolls and right-leaning trolls; and we see a huge spike of activity after Trump was elected in terms of right-leaning trolls. And people often forget in disinformation, there’s a reverse effect involved, so if I’m right-leaning, I take like say “Black Lives Matter” and I take memes that are meant to enrage the left, if I’m a right-leaning troll.

So, when we see a huge spike of right-leaning troll activity from Russia in the six months after Trump has been elected, we can’t then say that they’re just meant to elect Trump; that Russia had a bigger picture involved that was meant to just sort of cause chaos, cause discord, cause societal dissension – and those two points are really important and we just don’t talk about them enough.

There’s massive amounts of data that exist but some of the more popular graphs – I guess we use more often – come from places like NBC News and Reuters and various think tanks that are in around the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City, the Brookings Institute in Washington D.C. They all firmly establish an odd amount of internet activity involving meme production and social media intervention coming from sources that are inside of Russia – to such an intensity and such a degree – that we can’t just call it ‘coincidental activity’ where, just suddenly, there was a renewed or a buoyed interest in the 2016 American presidential election from Russian political followers. It just doesn’t make sense to believe that; we would be naïve to think that’s the case.

Post-Truth

The idea of “post-truth” first got coined by the Oxford Dictionaries in 2016 as the word of the year that was basically on the heels of the one-two gut punch of Brexit; and then immediately after Brexit, Donald Trump was elected president. And because of those two things together, the Oxford Dictionaries named post-truth as word of the year.

But the reality of this is – in a nutshell – post-truth is saying ‘where do I get my facts from,’ ‘what do I choose to believe in?’ ‘I don’t want to believe in objective analysis anymore; I just want to have emotional appeals to what I already believe ahead of time.’

So, [if I’m a post-truth advocate] I look for people who think like I do, believe like I do. I don’t want to engage debate, I don’t want intensive discussions, and I don’t need facts – don’t give me facts – I want something that runs in line with my emotions. That’s what post-truth technically is called. Without that phenomenon, which seems to be running wild all over America, and has absolutely nothing to do with the Russians, the disinformation campaigns of the Russians wouldn’t have worked.

Another video featuring Dr. Crosston: The ‘Hermit Kingdom’ of North Korea and its Nuclear Weapons Threat

Like these memes: if you look at the actual means – if you ever break them down – you see (sort of) left-leaning and right-leaning – but they’re absolutely farcical in what they’re trying to talk about. Like Hillary Clinton killed 48 people and has never been arrested; Donald Trump is a puppet and in the back pocket of Putin. No evidence – no direct evidence – no smoking gun to prove that. It’s meant to inflame and incite each side, which already believes those things anyway. On an emotional level – a deep emotional level – not any kind of factual, objective, analytical level. If that existence – if that post-truth phenomenon didn’t exist – disinformation doesn’t really work.

And so what really, really bothers me – more than anything else – is when you combine those two together. If we should be disturbed about anything –  it’s not about whatever Russia tried, or didn’t try, to do technologically – I’m more concerned about the fact that Russia was able to look at American society and figure something out about us that we didn’t know about ourselves. They understood us better than we understood ourselves, and they were able to take advantage of it. That’s the most disturbing thing that, as academics, we tend to not talk about.

AMU’s Sacred Mission

I think it’s one of the most principled and almost sacred missions we have at the university is to reclaim this territory that was once uniquely ours. Analytical thinking, critical reasoning, discernment, vetting our sources, accepting new information, trying to learn new things and engage new people that think differently from us – not instantly turning them into enemies. [All of] that used to be the bedrock of what our university was built upon – what every university was built upon.

We still have that here; that’s what’s so important to me – being here at the university and what we’re trying to do. But somewhere along the way, I think in American education in general, the words became not principled ideas but more like buzzwords, and they didn’t have as much value as they used to have. And, maybe worse, in ‘post-truth phenomenon Society of America,’ they’ve become weapons used against us. You’re an elite intellectual, so you’re a snob; so I dismiss you; so I won’t allow you to participate in my conversation; you don’t have access or entry here. That regresses all of us – not just one group – it regresses all of our society. So here at the university, our sacred mission is claiming all of that back for us and for our students and – as a consequence – for all of America.

About the Speaker

Matthew Crosston, Ph.D., serves as senior faculty for the doctoral programs in Strategic Intelligence and Global Security (DSI/DGS) for the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University. He holds a doctoral degree in international relations and national security studies from Brown University. Other academic credentials include a post-doctoral fellowship in international relations and global security from the University of Toronto; a master’s degree in post-Soviet affairs, democratization and development from the University of London; and a bachelor’s degree in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies from Colgate University.

Matthew is currently the Vice Chairman and Senior Editor for Modern Diplomacy. He is an author and international speaker on peace mediation, human rights conflicts, resource dilemmas, intelligence, change leadership, and education.

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