Masha Gessen: Did a Russian Troll Farm’s Inflammatory Posts Really Sway the 2016 Election for Trump?

The Justice Department recently indicted 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The indicted are accused of orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the US election system. The indictment claims the Russians spread negative information online about Hillary Clinton and supportive information about Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders — but some are warning against overstating what Russia accomplished. For more, we speak with award-winning Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her recent piece for The New Yorker is titled “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.”

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at the Justice Department’s recent indictment of 13 Russians and three companies in connection with efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. The indicted are accused of orchestrating an online propaganda effort to undermine the US election system. The indictment claims the Russians spread negative information online about Hillary Clinton and supportive information about Donald Trump, as well as Bernie Sanders.

After the indictments on Friday, some analysts compared the Russian interference to Japan’s 1941 attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. But others have warned not to overstate what Russia accomplished.

On Thursday, I sat down with the prize-winning Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Her recent book, The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, it won the National Book Award in 2017. Gessen recently wrote a piece for The New Yorker magazine headlined “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.” I began there, asking her about these indictments.

MASHA GESSEN: So, you know, for somebody who actually has read the indictment in its entirety, and, actually, the Russian reporting that is almost entirely repeated in the indictment, it’s really hard to square that with the way that it’s been portrayed as, you know, a sophisticated, bold effort. I think H.R. McMaster is correct in saying, yes, there’s “incontrovertible” evidence of Russian meddling, but to call it bold, to call it sophisticated and to imply that we now know that it actually had an influence on the outcome of the election is absurd. It was not bold. It was not sophisticated. And it — we don’t know, and probably never will know, whether it had any impact.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to the deputy attorney general, which surprised many, that he was the person who spoke on Friday, Rod Rosenstein, the man very much under attack by President Trump, who said there’s no evidence — this is Rosenstein — said there’s no evidence that the alleged interference influenced the outcome of the election.

DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL ROD ROSENSTEIN: The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States’ political system, including the 2016 presidential election. The defendants allegedly conducted what they called ‘information warfare’ against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Masha Gessen, talk about what you found in reading the indictment, looking at how people are responding in Russia and here.

MASHA GESSEN: So, I am really fascinated with what it tells us about our imagination about the Russian imagination. So, Russia imagines America and the American political system as like this unassailable monolith that they are throwing stuff at just to try to make a dent, whereas the United States is starting increasingly to imagine Russia as all-powerful, as incredibly sophisticated, as capable of, you know, sending out some really absurd tweets, in sub-literate English, and somehow changing the outcome of the election. And that projects such a belief in the fragility of the system and the basic instability of it and in the gullibility of voters who read something that’s not even comprehensible English and suddenly change their vote. I mean, the working theory of the investigation — right? — is that Russians influenced the election by influencing American public opinion. And so, we’re asked to believe that a significant impact on American public opinion could be produced by, you know, the Bernie the Superman coloring book tweet.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain.

MASHA GESSEN: Well, among the Facebook ads — you know, a lot of them were truly absurd. They’re like caricatures of American political propaganda. For example, there was a coloring book of a sort of buff Bernie, with tweets going out saying that it was suitable for all ages, and that was supposed to sort of advance the Sanders candidacy to detract from Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. There was the Satan arm-wrestling Jesus ad, where Satan is supposed to be Hillary and Jesus is supposed to be Trump, and you have to vote the right way. And we’re asked to believe that that had a measurable impact on a billion-dollar campaign?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you write about all the different reactions, from the vice president of Facebook, Rob Goldman, what he said, what Trump said. And take it from there.

MASHA GESSEN: Well, so, Rob Goldman wrote that he has seen all the Russian ads and tweets, which — ads and posts, which, of course, we haven’t, right? We know that Facebook turned them over to the congressional investigators, but we’ve only seen a small selection of them. And I suspect that what we’ve seen are the ones that make any sense at all, right? Because there’s also just this giant amount of internet static that’s produced. And so, Rob Goldman posted — tweeted, “I’ve seen all the Russian ads. Their goal was not to elect Trump,” I think — am I quoting this correctly?

AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to what the Facebook vice president, Rob Goldman, said, as he took to Twitter, writing, “Very excited to see the Mueller indictment today. We shared Russian ads with Congress, Mueller and the American people to help the public understand how the Russians abused our system. Still, there are key facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.” And then, in a subsequent tweet, Goldman wrote, “Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election. I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was ‘NOT’ the main goal.” President Trump quoted the latter statement in a tweet the next day.

MASHA GESSEN: Right. So, swaying the election was not the main goal. And I think —

AMY GOODMAN: Just creating —

MASHA GESSEN: I mean, this is conjecture on my part, but also based on what I know about what the Russian trolls themselves are saying, because they have been interviewed at this point by Russian journalists. And, you know, their goal was to create a mess, to screw with us, right? And I think that what Rob Goldman is probably looking at is a huge mess of incomprehensible sort of messaging. Incomprehensible messaging is a very important part of Russian propaganda. I mean, it’s not — you know, this is not an imaginary phenomenon, right? Creating a cacophony —

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not unimaginable here, either.

MASHA GESSEN: But creating a cacophony, creating confusion, creating the sense that nothing means anything anymore is definitely important, right? But that is different from saying that their goal was to sway the outcome of the election and that we can say with any amount of certainty that that worked and that’s how we got Trump.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s also served another purpose, for example, when it comes to these large megacorporations, like Facebook and Twitter. They’ve been hauled before Congress, before the British Parliament, and they’re saying, “How could you have allowed this to appear?” And in the end, they’re being pressured, basically, these corporations, to censor what is out there.

MASHA GESSEN: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think that the agenda of holding Facebook accountable publicly is such a bad agenda. You know, I think that a conversation about what Facebook is — is it a public resource, even though it’s a privately owned corporation? Is it a media company? It is certainly not just a platform, as Facebook has claimed repeatedly. I think that is a really important question. I just think it’s been asked in the wrong way, right? It’s been asked — you know, when we saw Senator Al Franken badgering the Facebook lawyer and screaming, you know, “They were Russians! You know, how could you not see that these ads were bought for rubles?” Well, why are we starting at a place where we assume that selling advertising for rubles, that there’s something necessarily sinister and horrible about it? Right? And that is — I don’t think that moves forward a conversation about how something that has de facto become a public resource, but is privately owned, functions in society.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen wrote a piece in The New Yorker magazine, “The Fundamental Uncertainty of Mueller’s Russia Indictments.” We will come back to this discussion in a minute.