The criminal complaint against Khusyaynova claims that she and her co-conspirators aimed “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system” by “creating social and political polarization.” To that end, it says, they adopted false online identities and used them to “inflame passions on a wide variety of topics, including immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women’s March, and the NFL national anthem debate.”
In other words, they mimicked a bunch of all-American politicians and pundits, many of whom spend the home stretch of every election trying to polarize us and inflame our passions, often by invoking those very issues. And then the Russians added a little more shouting to the din.
Not that their disguises were flawless. The FBI agent’s affidavit against Khusyaynova claims that her conspiracy started an anti-immigration Facebook group called “Stop A.I.” This, the agent informs us, was an abbreviation for “Stop All Invaders.” The page no longer exists, so I don’t know how many people joined it looking to put the brakes on artificial intelligence.
Michael Carpenter: Russia is co-opting angry young men.
It would be nice if we could stick to debating the Khusyaynova charges on their own terms. Reporters could probe how true the accusations are; lawyers could argue about whether the activities rise to the level of illegal fraud; civil libertarians could question whether the government should police what ultimately amount to acts of speech. We could have a normal news cycle about a single set of accusations.
But in 2018, this story inevitably flows into a much larger narrative. Over the past two years, there’s been a steady drumbeat of reports about Russians spreading fake news, creating fake social-media accounts, and forming fake groups that try to organize real demonstrations on U.S. soil. The reporters frequently add the appropriate caveats and cautions, but even then, many of their stories are framed in ways that scapegoat Moscow for America’s domestic political divides. (When The New York Times runs a headline like “How Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics,” note how it puts the Russians, not the raging Americans, in the driver’s seat.) This country has a long history of blaming its problems on alien infections, and it’s easy to insert these Facebook pod people into that old legend.
So it surely matters that these stories tend to feature far more examples of Russians imitating Americans than influencing Americans. Even what at first glance might seem like a big success—the time Russian poseurs drew thousands of protesters to an anti–Donald Trump march in New York City—looks less impressive when you realize how they did it: by scheduling it at a time and place that was already seeing constant marches against Trump. Senator Angus King of Maine once said that Moscow wants to “take a crack in our society and turn it into a chasm.” These folks found a chasm that was already there, and they used it as camouflage.