• on October 9, 2020

Understanding “Sow Discord”

We need to avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of political violence during and after the election

I passed out on the couch after the Vice Presidential debate, where I had stayed up arguing via text with one of my trumpiest friends about the nature of reality — both of us arguing the other one wasn’t paying attention to the “real” news. It was one of those surreal and unnerving exchanges where you realize that the motivations for trumpism are hard to pin down — fleeting, hyper-individualized, sometimes sounding as much or even more far-left as far-right. A belief that everything is broken, a rejection of all systems, the embrace of the view that the center cannot and will not hold, so maybe it’s ok to accelerate the fragmentation, or at least believe it is not worth stopping. The conversation kept spinning back to this idea of the coming need to defend some core set of beliefs by force. Fight who? I asked. The answer to that wasn’t clear. Whoever. Clearly this was about other Americans, and the idea that Americans would need to fight Americans. But why? For what? Not to build something, win something. Just to defend what you have through a time of inevitable unraveling. 

Some piece of this is a quintessential American archetype — the stoic frontiersman moving further and further to the West to evade the tedious and meddling arm of government, where defending you and yours over all else is noble and romantic. But another piece is unique to this era of escalating cynicism. 

This was still going round and round in my head when news broke the following afternoon about the arrest of 13 “militia” members involved in a sweeping domestic terror plot in Michigan. The plot involved firearms and explosives, and planned to kidnap and possibly execute the Democratic governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and overthrow the government (among other acts of violence and demolition that would result in the deaths of law enforcement personnel and probably civilians),with the hope of sparking a “civil war.”  It emerged from online associations that began as a rejection of state lockdowns in response to COVID-19. At least two leading members of the plot participated in the armed demonstrations inside Michigan’s statehouse earlier in the summer. It was a serious, resourced planning effort, which thankfully the FBI was inside from early days. It was fortunate that the cell could be identified via their social media chatter; some members were affiliated with better-established “militia” activity, but mostly this was a spontaneously-formed alliance focused on a specific mission plan — often the kind of thing that can be hard to identify in time. 

This represents the most serious domestic terror plot in at least the past decade. It’s unnerving the way it weaves together the anti-lockdown/“anti-tyranny”/“pro-liberty” themes amplified by the President, his twitter feed, select Republican lawmakers, and right-wing media since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more established anti-establishment/“sovereign” themes that have been building for some time. Some of the social media content of the members is what you would expect — QAnon, liberty blah blah, anti-vax, anti-lockdown, boogaloo, “civil war” — and some is far more traditional anarchist/“all government is tyranny” content. There’s a strong vein of anti-wealth narrative, which also defies left/right distinctions these days. In short, it’s a snapshot of the online ideological chaos that is accelerating the decay of our democracy. A decay inflamed by the President of the United States and his calls to action against whatever windmill. 

But it gets at something worth highlighting — this term we have come to throw around quite casually: “sow discord.” Since we began analyzing the Russian information and influence campaigns targeting the 2016 elections, this has become common usage: “The Kremlin sought to sow discord in American society.” In the Mueller report, the many bipartisan Senate reports, the reports on the Internet Research Agency and its tropes and tactics, in intelligence assessments of what Putin hoped for, it is impossible to escape this phrase — “sow discord.” Now every congressman and senator and government witness testifying before congress and tv commentator and podcaster throws it out: “we know the Russians seek to sow discord.” 

It’s great that everyone is clear on the catchy lexicon. But, in real terms, we don’t talk about what “sow discord” means. And it matters, because it gets at how we are exploited by this tactic — and not just by the Kremlin and foreign information operations. 

If you are the Kremlin, “to sow discord” means to escalate the potential for unrest and conflict within a society or population — what is sometimes referred to as the “protest potential” of a population in doctrine. It’s kind of like the activation energy of a crowd: is it more or less likely that an event could spark crisis or uprising.

The most efficient way to elevate this potential is to manipulate or drive a conflict from both (or all) sides — what is described by the Russian equivalent of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs as using “internal opposition to create a permanently operating front through the entire territory of the enemy state.” You want to push the conflict — in some cases, any conflict. That heightened perception of turmoil and internal strife corrodes the resilience of a target nation, distracts from real threats, and increases the potential that individuals and groups can be manipulated by malign influence campaigns into achieving the goals of the enemy (which can often be as simple as the churn and chaos itself). Sure, you may have other goals. But setting an adversary on fire is a useful backup strategy in many instances. 

Part of the challenge we have had gaining clarity on this issue has come from Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. So much of what has come after has been about forcing him and his supporters to see how this influence and manipulation — which Trump and his campaign encouraged and applauded — impacted the American electorate and the overall American environment, that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that Russia was indeed targeting “both sides.” This is highlighted in the reports about the Kremlin’s information campaigns, which document some of the narratives and memes that were used to target the left, especially supporters of Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, anti-police themes, racial justice themes, and environmental issues. I’ve written, in this blog and in Great Power, about the importance of the Jade Helm 2015 conspiracy as a test of Kremlin information campaigns that were targeting right-wing Americans — but there were also trial Kremlin information campaigns around the same time targeting the various anti-pipeline protests across the northern American states, which were a far more left-wing affair. One of the most frequently used examples of the IRA’s activities is the time they organized both sides of a protest to confront each other

But we also know that the intelligence community assessed that the Kremlin preferred a Trump victory and was denigrating Clinton. So why be on both sides of an issue? First, because even when you have a preference, you prepare for any eventuality. Second, because the strife and division is deeper if you grab both sides of the spectrum and pull. Third, because the Kremlin’s goal in 2016 wasn’t to puppet master America — it was to weaken us and move us back from the world and our allies. And how inward-looking we have become, really? Yeah. Exactly. 

“Sowing discord” is not something used only by foreign actors. Political disruptors close to the president — like Steve Bannon — also understand that stoking more than one side of an issue can yield maximum division in a way that is advantageous. 

So why am I talking about this, and what does it have to do with the Michigan terror plot? Because we are all — all of us, no matter what our political leanings — becoming too wrapped in a potentially self-fulfilling narrative of the inevitability of violence in this election cycle. It was bad enough when far-right militias and sovereign groups were rallying for “a second civil war” in America, amplified by Russian networks (and I’m sure others), before the left picked up this theme. Now everyone talks about plans for it. Foreign newspapers write about it. Our allies publicly worry about it. 

After the Michigan plot was exposed, fears of militias are being conflated with the many potential disinformation threats that will come during and after the election, visions of gun-toting cosplayers intimidating voters at the polls merging with with Trump’s call for his loyalists to go and “watch the polls” on Election Day — an organization and mobilization plan pushed by his campaign as “the army of trump”. This rhetoric is part of the problem, consistently militarizing and de facto escalating how we talk about this threat — just as QAnon recruited “digital soldiers” to its mission over the summer. 

It seems insane that we are talking about this — about violent unrest, armed insurgency, in America. And I’m not saying that clear-eyed threat assessments aren’t necessary, or that the tensions in American society aren’t real, or that there isn’t the potential for (likely small pockets) of unrest around the elections or before the inauguration. But our descent into chaos is not a given, and we need to stop inflating its potential in how we discuss it. In the Michigan plot: the institutions did their job against specific threats. We aren’t dead yet. Let’s just keep this all in mind. But an awful lot of malign actors — foreign and domestic — want to pull us to the extremes, and have us all screaming about the coming civil war. So, don’t. 

As in so many other instances, the threat and fear of violence distracts from the more significant potential challenges, including the thousands of untrained, uncertified Trump “poll watchers” potentially disrupting voting, intimidating actual poll workers or compromising the integrity of the balloting process, and probably generating thousands upon thousands of impossible-to-verify social media claims about fraud, manipulation, and voting errors — what Trump calls “voter integrity” initiatives. This clutter will be impossible to dispel, especially running parallel to the “mailed ballots are rigged” narratives. Any state not working to cut this off is begging for their own process to be undermined, and their own legitimacy to be questioned. 

Election workers, state governments and law enforcement, business and corporations, individuals — everyone seems to be preparing for the unraveling, and seeking out messages that reinforce this narrative. It’s hard not to when we are inundated on an hourly basis by the infectious messaging of the president, eager to stoke division and perceived conflict if it keeps him at the top of the news. 

But here’s the thing: we aren’t going to wake up in season 4 of The Walking Dead on November  4th, where we would have the relative luxury (yes, this is sarcasm) of solving our problems without laws or consequences, with violence and stockpiled ammo and makeshift weapons and emergency rations winning the day. No, we’re still going to live in a fractured, divided America barreling into the future that is imperfectly governed by imperfect laws — both the government and laws being too slow to keep up with the transformative nature of this early 21st century life — and thirsty for leadership that actually addresses the problems and deep, biting uncertainties of everyday people. Everyone is focused on “pods” or de facto city-states or apparently breakaway territories as a way to achieve this sense of certainty and control again, because no one expects government to solve any of these problems. Even government doesn’t expect government to solve any problems. And really — this is ludicrous. All of it. 

So I am begging you to stop and ask: fight who? You won’t like the answer when you pick it apart. We all need to dial back the rhetoric of conflict and unpreventable decline, or the real adversaries — be they foreign or domestic — of what America is and has to be will win, and really, they don’t deserve to. 

Don’t amplify unnecessarily divisive content — even when it plays to your beliefs and fears. Don’t tweet your fears — offer something smarter instead. Don’t participate in the echo chamber of the inevitability of American descent into violence and despair. We are not powerless actors. Our institutions matter. We matter. We have a month to convince ourselves that we’re willing to do the real work to hang on to our hard-won nation, in which there is a place for all of us, and a better future for all of us. Echo the America you love, not the America you fear. Don’t mirror the discord. 

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