Robert Mueller’s charges against 13 Russians and their troll farm for “information warfare” against the U.S. has prompted comparisons to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. Max Blumenthal breaks down the indictment and the overblown reaction
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. The latest indictment in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, accuses 13 Russian individuals and three organizations of using social media propaganda to interfere with the US political process and the 2016 Presidential election.
SPEAKER: 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.
AARON MATÉ: The detailed charging document offers nothing on the email hacking of the DNC and John Podesta nor on suspicions of Kremlin collusion that have engulfed Donald Trump’s presidency. Nor does it even directly tie the indicted troll farm in Russia to the Russian government. But that does not calm the rhetoric surrounding Russiagate.
Speaking to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, Democratic Congress member Jerrold Nadler, compared the alleged Russian meddling to Pearl Harbor.
JERROLD NADLER: Imagine if FDR had denied that the Japanese attacked us at Pearl Harbor and didn’t react. That’s the equivalent.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, it’s a bit of a different thing.
JERROLD NADLER: No, it’s not.
CHRIS HAYES: It didn’t kill anyone.
JERROLD NADLER: They didn’t kill anyone but they’re destroying our our country…
CHRIS HAYES: Do you really think it’s on par?
JERROLD NADLER: No, in the amount of islands but I think in the seriousness, it is very much on par. This country exists to have a democratic system with a small D, that’s what the country’s all about and this is an attempt to destroy that.
AARON MATÉ: Joining me is Max Blumenthal, senior editor of the Grayzone Project here at The Real News and a best selling author.
Max, welcome. Before we get to what’s inside the indictment, let’s start with reaction like we just saw from Jerrold Nadler. He was far from the only one to compare this troll farm operation to a catastrophic world event that killed people. Other people, like Max Boot, compared it to 9/11. Everyone talking about the fact that President Trump is not forcefully responding. What’s your reaction to the response we’ve seen to the indictment since it came down on Friday?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Just on that specific point, it’s clear that this is a Democratic talking point that’s being circulated and that talking heads and representatives of the Democratic establishment are being urged to issue this talking point in order to shock the public. Shock the public into adopting a Cold War siege mentality and to shock the public into the belief that Donald Trump is allowing America to be bled to death by a foreign enemy while he says nothing. And they’re doing it through repetition. You have to keep in mind that the last three presidential candidates who ran on anti-Russian platform, McCain, Romney and Hillary Clinton, who has also compared, the Russian meddling to 9/11, lost.
They’re attempting to set the stage for another candidate to reinforce and retrench the establishment position on an anti-Russian pro Cold War platform by using these talking points again and again and again. And I think that the repetition is beginning to work particularly among Democrats and their coastal liberal base. I think what it really illustrates is that the highly educated coastal liberal, if you want to call them an elite, are just as susceptible to pro-war propaganda campaigns and conspiracism as the Red State Rabble that they hold in so much contempt. I think we’re in a really dangerous moment now where you and I can laugh at these kind of talking points but, if you turn on any of the, you know, CNN or MSNBC, particularly, or open up the pages of the Washington Post or the New York Times, they’re being reinforced by sources that people in the supposed political opposition truly trust and they’re beginning to fall on fertile soil.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk about the indictment, Max. Reading through it, the prosecution alleges some clear political motives, a preference, basically, for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and a strong distaste for Hillary Clinton, also support for some, also, the encouragement of Russian trolls to disparage Republicans like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. There does appear to be some political motives there in whatever the Russians, whatever these alleged suspects were doing. But also, there’s a strong commercial component in the sense that the accounts that the Russians are accused of creating were used to essentially, as a scheme in which vendors would pay them money for retweets at sometimes $25 to $50 a pop. It seems to me that there is both a commercial motive here as well as a political imperative, as well. Im wondering your thoughts on what this indictment tells us.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: First of all, this indictment tells us how thin Mueller’s evidence is. I know that might sound absurd to people who’ve been watching wall to wall coverage of this on MSNBC and CNN, but this is an indictment of 13 employees of a troll farm in Saint Petersburg, run by a literal hot dog salesman, who has no established or proven connection to Russian intelligence or the Russian government. It was an extremely sloppy operation that has even been identified in the Mueller indictment, as you said, as at least partly commercial operation.
Let me just go into some of the chronology and history of this operation and then we can kind of get into the details of the indictment. You have Yevgeny Prigozhin was a caterer in the 1990’s in Russia, you know, after the Cold War when the market opened up to oligarchs and it just became a complete free for all and what he would do is, basically, sell American junk food at inflated prices. He got a lot of catering contracts, not only with Russian elites who would like to go eat in his restaurants and eat gourmet hot dogs but with school cafeterias. The food was so bad that parents in Moscow began to complain. They said that their kids were getting fat, you know, they’re basically being set up for diabetes like American high school kids were. And so, Prigozhin decided he needed a PR effort to push back.
He started a troll farm and began hiring journalistic rejects in Moscow for like $1,200 dollars a month to fill up comment threads on negative articles. It was the beginning of what’s known as talk backs in other parts of the world, but we simply call them comment threads. And so, he flooded them with trolls and it was basically to defend his own commercial operation.
In 2013, the Internet Research Agency, his troll farm, allegedly began to fill up comment threads on articles about Alexei Navalny, who was emerging as the main opposition leader to Vladimir Putin in Russia, painting Navalny in a negative light. A year later they started their translation department where they began doing what they are accused of in the indictment, which is taking out ads under false identities on Facebook and Twitter and social media partly with a commercial intention. But it’s important to note the chronology because this began in 2013, revved up in 2014 and really was not directed at any specific US election.
There’s a good article actually, in the New York Times, by Neil MacFarquhar, who found that, who concluded, you know, this is one of the New York Times’ staff writers, I’m quoting him directly, “The intelligence services of Russia were not involved in running the organization.” He referred to the Internet Research Agency’s posts on Facebook and elsewhere, as graffiti, just trash on Twitter and said that the charges laid out in the indictment actually correspond with Vladimir Putin’s position that rouge patriots are responsible not only for trolling, but also for email hacking and cyber attacks connected to the US election.
So, basically, this actually supports the Russian position that the FSB and the military intelligence armed group had very to do, if anything, with any meddling in the 2016 election. This is a freelance operation carried out by someone who might of gotten contracts from the Kremlin but has no known connection. It was extremely sloppy, unlike other alleged Russian intelligence hacking operations, which are elaborately concealed and MacFarquhars reporting totally contradicts the headline that the New York Times gave it, which says that this operation points at the Kremlin. Again, we’re talking about 13 employees of a troll farm who are indicted here and it’s being treated as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 by the American political establishment.
What we can say is that there were hundreds of Facebook groups set up by the Internet Research Agency, some of them related to puppies. We’ve talked about this before, that there were cute puppy images that were apparently a part of this commercial scam. There was, the main probe, Bernie Sanders’ page, the one that we know of, was a buff Bernie LGBT themed coloring book where Bernie Sanders is depicted shirtless and extremely ripped with chiseled pecs and arms. I really don’t understand how this helped Bernie Sanders in any way but who it does help and who this entire narrative helps, the narrative that’s laid out in the indictment, which appears to be cherry picking evidence is it supports the Democratic establishment narrative.
It supports the Clintonite narrative. Clinton did not expect to be challenged by Bernie Sanders in this way. Her people are still out there, they’re still working in think tanks, they’re still looking for jobs on a 2020 campaign. They’re getting behind Joe Kennedy or Kamala Harris and they’re deeply concerned about Bernie Sanders’ presence and they’re looking to sabotage him before he can even declare again. And so, we’ve seen Bernie Sanders put on the record, asked to denounce Russian support for himself, which is absolutely absurd. Bernie Sanders thrived off of a real grassroots base and Bernie Sanders, himself, is experiencing blow back for feeding into the Russia-gate narrative. He’s constantly parroting this very narrative that’s being turned on him.
Jill Stein is also under attack again now because of the Mueller indictment and we also have to keep in mind that Black Lives Matter was a thorn in Hillary Clinton’s side. She was interrupted at campaign fundraisers, at events. Her husband, Bill Clinton was interrupted because of their role in massively expanding the federal prison system, in eliminating welfare as we know it. And so, there’s an effort in undermining Black Lives Matter by tying them to a Russian influence operation. Everyone on the left has to be extremely aware of what’s happening here and they need to mount a united front against Russiagate because, as I said at the beginning, just as in the old Cold War, a new Cold War will embolden the most militaristic actors in our society and marginalize everyone on the left by design.
With this Mueller indictment, we are seeing that scenario play out in an extremely terrifying fashion with very little push back from the institutional left.
AARON MATÉ: You know, Max, a few points here. One, you know, it’s worth recalling, and we know this from the emails that were released from inside the Democratic party, which is that it was, in fact, the Clinton campaign that also worked to promote Trump because they thought that he would be a great candidate.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: The pied piper strategy.
AARON MATÉ: Yeah. And no one ever questioned the presumption that, I mean, even if all these Russian ads did have the sole purpose of trying to elect Donald Trump, which seems pretty impossible given some of the content that you outlined, like Buff Bernie, or puppies, or the fact that a majority of the Russian Facebook ad spending came after the election. Even if that was the goal, I mean, it’s impossible to believe, I mean, look at these ads, and believe that they had an impact. And one more thing I want to raise which is that it’s been widely reported that this troll farm operation had a budget of $1.25 million dollars. That figure is being cited very often. They’re excluding the item that comes before that in the indictment, which says that budget was for the troll farms overall global operations, including inside Russia itself.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I mean, mainstream accounts are stating the $1.25 million figure as a monthly budget, which is absolutely false. This is an extremely small operation. We see other data used to shock the public into submission like that the Internet Research Agency ads and Face, and false Twitter accounts gained four million impressions. I gain about four million impressions on Twitter through my own Twitter account in about three days. That’s not a lot of impressions. The Internet Research Agency is accused in the New York Times by Peter Baker of focusing on Purple States and Swing States, in fact, this troll farm spent about $1,000 in Wisconsin and Michigan in 2016 and not entirely on anti-Clinton material. Although, $1,000 is more than Hillary Clinton probably spent in Wisconsin and Michigan in the last days of the campaign, it’s not very much and even Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has found that this operation had no perceptible impact on the outcome of the election.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen, even before this indictment, that 82% of Democrats, according to a CNN poll, believe that Facebook ads, Twitter ads by a Saint Petersburg troll farm were decisive in swinging the election in Donald Trump’s favor. They’re just swallowing this narrative whole. This is the same crowd that now has a favorable impression of George W. Bush. We can call them the George W. Bush Resistance.
But let’s point to some other data that was laid out by Facebook executives or one of Facebook’s chief tech officers, Rob Portman, on Twitter two days ago, after the indictment came out. It’s data that we’ve cited before here in our interviews and discussions and it’s really critical and Portman was heavily attacked for daring to mention it. 56% of the troll farm ads that are cited in the Mueller indictment in which we were referred to by the Senate and House Intelligence Committee and their Russian investigation, 56% appeared after the 2016 election and 25% of those ads were seen by no one. So, even if you look at the cumulative data, you have to subtract, not only 56%, but something like 81%. So, 81% of the ads had no impact on the election whatsoever.
AARON MATÉ: That’s going to wrap part one of my conversation with Max Blumenthal. Join us in part two.
Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of books including best-selling Republican Gomorrah: Inside the Movement That Shattered the Party, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, The Fifty One Day War: Ruin and Resistance in Gaza, and The Management of Savagery, which will be published later this year by Verso. He has also produced numerous print articles for an array of publications, many video reports and several documentaries including Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie and the forthcoming Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded the Grayzone Project in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.