Guest Post from SUR Intern, Dakota Stephens.
At this point it’s a well established fact that Russia has undertaken a campaign to undermine democracy everywhere, including the US, using a variety of tools and techniques. We may not be at the height of the Cold War anymore, and we may not even envision this rivalry in the same ideological terms we once did, but Putin continues to see the United States and the tradition of freedom and democracy as threats to Russian interests. This idea drives Putin’s foreign policy, and thus recapturing this status is not seen as merely a symbol of national pride, but also as a vital security interest. Any democratic impulse is therefore seen as a threat to this interest, and must be dismantled for Russia to regain its stature in the international community.
In the postwar era we have established a number of structures to avoid all-out war, but Russia has become a master of pursuing its goals through less kinetic forms of warfare, such as political warfare, cyber and information campaigns, and a variety of gray-area tactics. Especially when facing its most powerful adversaries, such as the US, Russia opts for tactics that sow discord, distrust, and chaos. It seeks to erode our confidence in the ideas of liberty and equality from which our nation derives its strength. Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 election brought this issue to the forefront of our national consciousness and caught many by surprise, but it was far from their first bid to weaken and divide America. Several similar efforts took place prior to this one, almost certainly to test the waters before they embarked on such a significant operation.
The 2015 Jade Helm conspiracy is one such example of Russian interference that preceded — and likely directly contributed to — their decision to meddle in the 2016 election. A military training exercise took the internet by storm when a number of conspiracies spread that it was a cover for something far more sinister. The actual conspiracy theories varied. Some believed it was an Obama plot to implement martial law, or take people’s guns, or imprison political opponents. Some theories even speculated the involvement of Blue Bell ice cream trucks or Walmart military bases. Notably, as these stories began to spread, so too did a parallel conspiracy that Russia was coming to the aid of Texas rebels to prepare them for an impending civil war. Concern over the training exercise became so widespread that Governor Abbott responded by sending a letter to the Texas State Guard telling them to “monitor the situation”.
A recent interview of former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden revealed that this irrational paranoia didn’t arise organically, but was actually a test case using Russian bots and alt-right media to see if information campaigns like these could work. According to Hayden, Governor Abbott’s letter to the State Guard legitimized the conspiracy both domestically and in the minds of Russian intelligence officials. In Hayden’s analysis, this signalled the success that these types of operations could achieve at the highest levels of US government, and likely gave them the confidence to employ similar tactics in our elections. Jade Helm is just one example in a long history of Russian attempts to divide Americans and incite turmoil, but this case demonstrated that their operations could create such a high level of panic that they could influence elected US officials.
This was hardly an isolated event. In keeping with their goal of driving a wedge in American society, previous Russian operations promoted secessionist movements by stoking xenophobia, nativism, and white nationalism. They harnessed these past initiatives to amplify Jade Helm and target the audience most likely to be influenced by the conspiracy. They also utilized social media bots to fuel the stories, while conspiracy sites like Alex Jones’ InfoWars immediately jumped on the opportunity to push the false narrative of a coming civil war. A letter from a supposed Texas Ranger to the Common Sense Show also spread the rumor that trains with shackles were going to be used to transport prisoners. In the end, Russia enjoyed substantial support from alt-right media sources in promoting a conspiracy that had no basis in reality.
It’s certainly difficult to trace Russian disinformation efforts as a whole back to a single event, but in this case we have a former intelligence chief making the analysis that Jade Helm directly led to the Russian effort to influence our elections at the highest level. It can often be easy to dismiss the issue of fake news and conspiracies as minor problems that don’t play a significant role in our society, but the Jade Helm case is strong evidence to the contrary. It highlights the potential dangers of our information consumption and the precautions we must take before posting anything online. In the short term, we may inadvertently cause warrantless panic and instability, and in the long term we may contribute to a myriad of unintended consequences, and perhaps even embolden our enemies.