From Putin to Pizzagate

From Putin to Pizzagate

How the Ukraine invasion is part of a long-running Russian assault on the West

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been long planned and, according to Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr it is the visible front of a long-invisible war of Russian ‘dezinformatsiya’. The Soviets had practised ‘dezinformatsiya’ for years but in 2014, for the first time, technology became a fundamental tool for the manipulation of social media users in the West. It was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fury at the removal of elected Ukraine President Viktor Yankovych in February of that year, says Cadwalladr, that led to what she calls this ‘Great Information War’. By a mixture of fake news, divisive political comment, and the promotion of conspiracy theories, via a vast multitude of fake accounts and bots, Russia’s aim was, she says, to undermine Western democracies in a well-funded military operation, targeted specifically but not exclusively at the USA. 

As part of this broader attack, President Putin ordered a covert operation aimed specifically at helping Donald Trump win the 2016 election. A declassified version of a US intelligence report, which became available in 2017, says the Russian government had a, ‘clear preference’ for Trump as leader, and its goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency in the 2016 election. 

A senior intelligence official told NBC News that, as well as the Democratic National Committee, Russian cyberattacks targeted the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the State Department, and American corporations. At the heart of these attacks were the technology platforms, principally Facebook, and a direct result was the so-called ‘Pizzagate’ affair. 

Pizzagate began in March 2016, when the personal email account of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager John Podesta was hacked, and WikiLeaks published his emails. These were said to connect prominent Democrat Party wonks with a supposed child sex ring being run out of the basement of a pizza restaurant. This conspiracy theory has been discredited by everybody who has looked into it, including the Washington, DC police. It went viral all the same, as members of the alt-right – a ragbag of ‘alternative-right-wing’ extreme-nationalists and white supremacists – began posting claims on the internet, their natural home. These often-anonymous characters, using platforms such as 4chan, Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter, were soon joined by ‘conservative’ journalists, inadvertently doing the Russians’ social media work for them. In a single month, nearly a million messages were reportedly sent using the term ‘Pizzagate’, no matter that the claims were entirely fake. And not even all that clever. ‘They ignore basic truths,’ said the pizza restaurant owner, ‘We don’t even have a basement.’ 

In a joint-statement the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the US Department of Homeland Security said: ‘We assess with high confidence that the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence arm) relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks,’ though Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denied the claims. For reasons best known to himself he decided to do so on the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet RT (formerly Russia Today).

But the end was not yet. One December day, a devoutly revved-up Christian named Edgar Maddison Welch resolved to ‘self-investigate’ Pizzagate by entering the restaurant, where parents and children were trying to enjoy a family meal, and firing his rifle. Opening a door in search of the non-existent basement, he found himself in a cupboard. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so dangerous. Very luckily, nobody was hurt. After his arrest he told the New York Times, ‘The intel on this wasn’t a hundred per cent.’ Neither it seems were his critical faculties. He was sent down for four years.

Professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, Viren Swami, who has studied conspiracy beliefs in detail, says that in the US, ‘conspiracy theorising is now being deployed as a political weapon.’ Politicians such as Donald Trump, says Swami, have used conspiracy theories to mobilise support by propagating crude fabrications like Pizzagate. In this atmosphere it was no surprise, during the Covid-19 US vaccination programme, to hear the head of the Russian Communist Party refer to an American plan for, ‘a covert mass chip implantation which they may in time resort to under the pretext of a mandatory vaccination against coronavirus.’ The claim spread like hives across Facebook and other tech platforms. 

In the UK, social media was used extensively during the Brexit campaign. The University of Edinburgh found that more than four hundred Twitter accounts had been used before the referendum as ‘Russian propaganda tools’. The claim was that Russia would be only too delighted to see the EU weakened by the loss of member states such as the UK. Facebook, though, said that any Russian propaganda was not significant. 

The international crossover of various actors in these dramas is noteworthy; many know each other. During the Brexit campaign, Leave.EU worked alongside Cambridge Analytica, a now-dead political consultancy at the centre of the storm over the controversial mining and use of Facebook data. The owner of Cambridge Analytica was US billionaire Robert Mercer, who was Donald Trump’s biggest election campaign donor. 

Carole Cadwalladr says that companies such as Cambridge Analytica andopportunists such as Dominic Cummings have exploited such social media platforms, which she says are totally open and totally closed – anyone can use them and nobody can see how. 

She maintains that though we know all this through the work of academics, journalists and the FBI, it has just been brushed under the carpet. And, ‘This failure is at the heart of what is happening now in Ukraine’. The US media and therefore the public failed to understand the real lessons of the Mueller Report. In the UK ‘we didn’t even bother trying. We allowed Johnson’s government to sweep 2016 under the carpet. Nigel Farage. Arron Banks. Facebook. Russia. The lot.’ 

But Cadwalladr’s analysis goes much further. She says the invasion of Ukraine is about more than Ukraine: ‘We are part of the plan. We have always been part of the plan… Putin’s strategy in Ukraine is not just a strategy in Ukraine, it’s directed at us too. And that’s what makes this such a uniquely perilous moment.’ 

The position is clear: until we are all able to ask ourselves, ‘What was Brexit all about, really?’ or, ‘How did that character get elected?’ or, ‘What exactly is going on in Ukraine?’, and answer these questions with a bit of critical thinking about where our information comes from and what it is we are not being told, we will remain easy prey to scammers, hackers, authoritarians, and, yes, despots.

Tom Cutler’s book, It’s a Conspiracy: The world’s wildest conspiracy theories. What they don’t want you to know. And why the truth is out there is available at all good bricks-and-mortar bookshops, or here: http://bitly.ws/pgZG 

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