Following a new WSJ report indicating that Russian twitter bots backed Donald Trump from the very beginning (when his campaign was a joke, rather than today where it is a far, far crueler joke), Kevin Drum asks what motivated them to step in so early.
Here are his guesses:
- It was just a test. Social media manipulation was new to the Russians too, and they figured Trump might make an interesting test of how effective it could be.
- In the early days, you had to be very, very cynical about the United States to think that a race-baiting blowhard like Trump had a chance to win. Maybe Putin knew us better than we knew ourselves.
- The Russians never really thought Trump had a chance of winning. He just seemed like a good vehicle to sow a bit of random chaos.
- This whole thing started at a fairly low level by some guy who’d been pushing to “really try out this social media stuff.” His superiors finally got tired of him and told him to knock himself out. This low-level guy, it turns out, was a big Trump fan for personal reasons we’ll never know.
I vote "chaos". It's hard to remember now, but back when it seemed impossible for Trump to win the prevailing wisdom was "but even if Trump doesn't win, his candidacy could do lasting damage to our democratic fabric." That was the goal -- that Trump actually won the damn election was an improbable bonus. It's the same story behind Russia trying to horn in on BLM protests in Minnesota
, or setting up both anti-Muslim protests and counterprotests in Texas
. The goal is to destabilize, to make people trust each other less, to blur who is actually taking what position and instead confirm that everyone is the worst version of what their enemies imagine them to be.
And they've been extremely good at it. We were far more vulnerable to this form of manipulation than we ever dared imagine -- not the least because of rapid epistemic silo-ing and a profound mistrust of "mainstream media" sources (not to violate Broder's Sacred Principle, but the problem isn't symmetrical -- it was massively accelerated by the complete cloistering of the mainstream right into the Fox/Breitbart/Tea Party ideological echo chamber. There's just no parallel to this amongst mainstream progressives).
But yeah. Russia no doubt has preferences with respect to outcomes -- it's not an accident that they clearly wanted Trump to win and Hillary to lose -- but they also benefit simply from unleashing chaos and watching what develops. Trump made for an excellent agent of chaos; we've already seen the damage he has caused to previously-bedrock principles along issues like rule of law or (formal) racial egalitarianism.
Score a big point for Putin then. Well-played.