THE FRONT DOOR – Who could be knocking on my door at this hour, when I’m trying to recover from that New Year’s Eve party? How could I have known cops work on holidays? I open the door and see a man and a woman, dressed in outlandish cowboy outfits. “Vee are pollstings, come from Zan Angelo, to take pulse of American voters,” the woman says. “Dis is Billy Bob Horseshoe and I am Zally May Tumbleweed. Vee ask questions, KO?” This seems familiar. “Weren’t you in town earlier with the same phony disguise and stupid cover story? Yeah, I remember now. You are really Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova and Mikhail Leonidovich Burchik, known to the feds as a couple of top Russian agents. You were lurking around Texas trying to influence the outcome of the last presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Get lost before I call the FBI, or, for quicker action to boot you out of the country, I’ll call ICE.” Billy Bob speaks up. “You have bad memory, zitizen. We are not here to re-elect Trump, not yet, but to check your opinions on zings like guns for teachers, transgender bathrooms in Texas schools – dat a hot topic here in the third world — and zat angry horde storming your Rio.”
I slam the door and pick up the newspaper, not that I can believe anything in the press these days. “Two reports reveal new details about the Russian effort to sway American opinion before the 2016 presidential election.” The reports, which were commissioned by the bi-partisan Senate Intelligence Committee, goes on to say that Russian attempts “were far deeper and more insidious that first thought by U.S. intelligence agencies.” The Kremlin worked big time. Russian propaganda had about 187 million engagements on Instagram, reaching at least 20 million users, and 76.5 million engagements on Facebook, reaching 126 million people. Approximately 1.4 million people, the report said, passed on tweets from the Internet Research Agency, or I.R.A., a St. Petersburg, Russia, company owned by a friend of President Donald Trump’s best buddy, President Vladimir Putin.
In one way or another, sometimes very sneakily, the messages were pro-Trump and anti-Hillary Clinton, causing hundreds of millions of gullible people, mostly Americans, reading and believing fabricated stories to influence the last presidential election. The Ruskies seemed to know a lot about us: “The organic Facebook posts reveal a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media and influencers in each community the I.R.A. targeted,” researchers found. Still, not all were experts. They have sent out propaganda with wording like “goode patriots” and “fellow people.” However, you need not worry that you have been taken for a ride or manipulated by the Russians since you don’t use social media. Those separate investigations found the I.R.A., besides inundating Facebook and Instagram, also used Google, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and Google+. In their effort to divide Americans, the I.R.A. via Facebook targeted blacks, with phony websites like “Don’t Shoot” and “BlackToLive.” But working both sides of the truncheon, the misinformation campaign hitched aboard the pro-police campaign, “Blue Lives Matter.”
What kind of misinformation were we fed? Hillary Clinton was suffering from a serious illness. There was even a TV clip showing her stumbling while entering a van which proved that she was on death’s door. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson kept that “serious illness” story alive for months, meaning those super-patriotic were actually pawns of the Kremlin. It was also reported, and passed on and on, that, as secretary of state, Hillary had approved weapons sales to the Islamic State and that Trump had been endorsed by Pope Francis. We’ve all heard those tales. In an election decided by a rounding error — fewer than 80,000 voters spread over three states — Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.
In times past, we have discussed the polezni durak, “the useful idiot,” the sort of person the Kremlin secretly holds in contempt but has gone all out to exploit. Luckily, we don’t have that problem with our current leadership. But there’s more. Now we have yet another Kremlin title for the MAGA’s hero: the Russian use of kompromat — compromising material. Some intelligence experts think it is likely that our President believes the Russians have something on him. One theorized: “He’s never said a bad word about Putin. He’s exercised a degree of self-control with respect to Russia that he doesn’t with anything else.” Is Trump under the influence of a kompromat? Is the Oval Office a Red Square?
The term was routinely used throughout the former Soviet Union, and now the current crop of Russian influence peddlers use the k-word as leverage to curry favor, improve negotiated outcomes and sway opinion. Of course, a lot of intelligence services, business folks and political figures exploit gossip and damaging information. (In some cases it’s called blackmail, which is why the FBI warned the White House about Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn who lied about his dealings with Moscow.) However, kompromat has a uniquely powerful role in the Russian intelligence service. They use it all the time. Not to be paranoid, but wouldn’t you love to see the Kremlin’s list of Americans under the headings of “polezni durak” and “kompromat?” If you think for one moment that there isn’t such a list, then your name is probably on it.
The good news is that you were too smart to fall for these stupid ploys aimed at the lowest common knuckle-dragging denominator. The bad news is that the investigators found the I.R.A. has not slowed down, but is refining and continuing its efforts to divide Americans and get Trump re-elected. I think the investigators are over-reacting. Besides, how dumb do the Russians think we are, and… there is another knock on my door. “Did you know dat Texas is best place in America to influence der voters? Zo gullible. Did you know Elizabeth Warren is dying?”
Ashby is paranoid at firstname.lastname@example.org