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COMMENTARY: Russians weren’t seeking to help Donald Trump

The Facebook ads placed by a Russian troll farm and released on Wednesday show that the Russian propaganda campaign of 2016 didn’t favor either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, it mocked and goaded America, holding up a distorted but, in the final analysis, remarkably accurate mirror.

This directly contradicts previous U.S. intelligence community assessments. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” the intelligence community assessment released in January stated. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

If the social network ads placed by the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency — a troll collective linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected restaurateur — reflect the strategy of the influence campaign, the intelligence community was wrong. The ads backed white nationalist as well as black causes. They often targeted Clinton before the election but switched to attacking Trump immediately afterwards. The ads against both were even visually similar.

A conceivable defense of the intelligence conclusion is that you can’t interfere in the election after the voters have chosen, so only the anti-Clinton bias of the Russian campaign really made a difference. That argument is lame, however. Neither the trolls with their tiny budgets — at best, hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates and their U.S. backers — nor Russian state media with their laughable reach compared with U.S. cable TV could have hoped to shape the election outcome. That would assume they knew more about U.S.-based influence tools than the entire U.S. political industry, which had been using these tools from the moment they were created, with their creators’ full cooperation.

Even today, the best Russian experts on the political uses of the social networks believe it would have been impossible to tip the scales with that kind of effort. Leonid Volkov, an internet entrepreneur and campaign manager to Putin’s No. 1 domestic foe, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook on Thursday:

“When people discuss, in all seriousness, ‘election interference’ by means of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads (hundreds of times less than the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent on FB ads), when leading political publications show as ‘proof’ hellish pictures the most viral of which garnered all of 200,000 views (and most got only a few thousand; 500 rubles — not thousand dollars, not even dollars — was spent on promoting some of them) — this is just not done, it is, above all, simply shameful. Darn, we got a total of 2 million views for our social network ads before a rally in Astrakhan, and it cost us 20,000 rubles. So what are you even talking about?”

Volkov’s campaigns are among the most sophisticated in Russia today. The St. Petersburg trolls, on entry-level salaries of about $1,000 a month (team leaders make some $2,000), are far less savvy than Navalny’s highly motivated team. The silly mistakes they made in their English — the misuse of modal verbs, the missing articles, the clumsy turns of phrase — are evidence that they were the lowest of infowar foot soldiers. They weren’t playing to win the U.S. election — just to stir things up as much as they could. They weren’t Republicans or Democrats: These parties don’t operate in St. Petersburg. They were trolls, happy to make a dent here, create a disturbance there, amplify an echo somewhere else.

The campaign was not tied to election timelines: It’s permanent, and it will go on while the United States and Russia are adversaries. In that sense, it’s no different from the Russian influence campaign in Ukraine. Elections and government changes that do nothing to alter the relationship between countries are just a useful background for propaganda, disinformation and sheer trollery because they politicize the audience and draw its attention to the divisive issues that propagandists exploit. Instability and confusion are the primary goals, and they’re easy to achieve on the cheap.

I’ve written for more than a year that the Kremlin’s goal in the U.S. election was not to promote either of the candidates. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of his special dislike for Clinton, he was never short-sighted enough to trust Trump — and no one in a position of power in Russia ever indicated that he did. The influence campaign’s real goal was to amplify America’s organic discord and undermine trust in institutions.

The current hearings about the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ads, with angry senators and squirming corporate lawyers hoping to avoid heavy-handed, misguided regulation, serve this purpose even better than the original ads did. U.S. legislators look powerless; the Americans who were supposedly taken in by the cheap, badly made ads look ignorant. U.S. intelligence agencies look politicized and incapable of serious analysis, let alone effective resistance, when it comes to Russian “active measures.”

The fit of U.S. self-flagellation likely goes beyond the trolls’ and propagandists’ wildest dreams. A great nation, with the world’s best-funded and most professional media and an institutional framework other nations could only dream of, ought to be able to ignore the Russian propagandists’ pitiful, incompetent efforts. The problem with Facebook and Twitter is not that you can pay in rubles for political ads (the trolls will be careful to use dollars in the future) but that an unknown, probably large percentage of their reported “users” are fake — but U.S. legislators neglect to address it in the face of the firms’ heavy lobbying artillery; while some questions have been asked about it at the hearing, no regulatory remedy has been proposed.

The problem with the American policy (and polity) goes even deeper than that: The United States is a bitterly divided country, and it wasn’t Russian propagandists who created these divisions, though they were happy to read about them in the U.S. media and use them in their efforts. It’s time the United States used its enormous resources to catch actual spies, if any were involved in the “election interference” or other collusion, and any agents those spies could have recruited in the United States. And it’s time U.S. law enforcement turned to the search for the dirty money that has corrupted the U.S. political establishment. Gazing with endless fascination into the trolls’ mirror is counterproductive; one glance should have been enough to see what really needs fixing.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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