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Putin’s Propagandists Exploit Emotion, Controversy to Distract, Divide Americans

Why do I hold comments from new sources in the moderation queue until the commenters respond to a confirmation email and share their full name? Because, among other things, my comment nymity policy protects my country from divisive Putin propaganda.

A fascinating report in the New York Times explains how the KGB agent who now rules Russia has revived has old agency’s strategy of exploiting social divisions to turn Americans against each other. In this case, NYT documents how Russian propagandists pretended to be Americans and posted provocative comments online to undermine the women’s movement that arose in 2017 in response to Trumpism. Their aim was like that of many trolls and Republicans—not to offer logic and evidence, but simply to own the libs:

Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money, indifferent to the themes they were asked to write on.

“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said Mr. Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities. But instead of refrigerators and nails, it was “Putin, Putin, then Putin, and then about Navalny,” referring to Aleksei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.

The job was not to put forward arguments, but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Mr. Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.

When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, he said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart. “It wasn’t on the level of discussing facts or giving new arguments,” he said. “It’s always a way of digging into dirty laundry” [Ellen Barry, “How the Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step,” New York Times, 2022.09.18].

Sound familiar?

We should not let anyone exploit emotion, personal grievances, or even legitimate political disagreements to undermine our efforts to work together for truth, justice, and shared public policy goals. People exploiting such points of division to derail civic discourse and action may not just be misguided; they may actually be Misha in Moscow helping Putin’s war on the West.


  1. larry kurtz 2022-09-20 07:54

    Yeah, because the United Snakes would never stoop to interfering in Russia’s future, right?

  2. P. Aitch 2022-09-20 12:00

    It’s been verified that there are 500 plus foreign political influencers actively at work on social media. They’re most active in election years like right now. You have to believe that at least 3 are targeting SD and who’s easier to influence than SD MAGAs? It’s like dripping water onto a sponge. I’ve read every sentence Pat Powers has written since Obama was inaugurated and it’s easy to recognize the regulars on his blog. It’s even easier to recognize when a foreign agent is using his platform to stir up anti-minority and anti-poor sentiments.

  3. larry kurtz 2022-09-20 14:04

    One nation’s election tampering is another’s psy-ops

    One diplomat put it this way: “Generally speaking, we shouldn’t be employing the same kind of tactics that our adversaries are using because the bottom line is we have the moral high ground. We are a society that is built on a certain set of values. We promote those values around the world and when we use tactics like those, it just undermines our argument about who we are.”

  4. Arlo Blundt 2022-09-20 15:56

    The Russian State under Putin is totally bankrupt, using oil as currency. The sanctions against Putin and the Oligarchs are working. He has to go to Uncle Xi for support to pay for weapons from North Korea as his troops in Ukraine have neither ammunition, artillery, or even food. Yet, he is spending hundreds of millions of dollars in countries all around the world on a massive disinformation campaign. Samantha Powers who has worked for our USAID program for many years, reports on MSNBC that she has encountered sophisticated Russian disinformation campaigns in countries as diverse as Mexico and Sri Lanka. It is Putin’s last gasp.

  5. Mark Wolski 2022-09-21 06:09

    All Russians are stupid. They are also evil and immoral. They can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
    Or wait, was that Republicans?
    Or Democrats?
    I‘m sorry, but naïve or misinformed generalizations get us nowhere.
    We need to talk.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2022-09-21 06:36

    I’m not sure who said all Russians are stupid. Evidently Putin is pretty smart if he can use social media to disrupt American politics.

  7. Dicta 2022-09-21 10:29

    Hi Mark! Your argument is what’s known as a strawman. You are arguing against points people weren’t making. I don’t know if it’s because you aren’t a very smart person or because you are just full of it, but we here in the DFP comments section request you do better. Thanks!

  8. P. Aitch 2022-09-21 14:54

    I had a half hour conversation with a friend in Russia this morning. She was pissed at her government because yesterday the people were told on the news that Russia would NOT mobilize. This morning the notification was put out that Russia is mobilizing immediately. She said the Motherland was getting very crazy. I conveyed that the Democracy was crazy, too. We get a lot of news about Putin but I don’t know if it’s the truth or propaganda. I told her the latest here was that Putin was annexing parts of Ukraine and if Ukranian soldiers attack the annexed land they were DeFacto attacking the Motherland and he was justified to use nuclear weapons. She said that was what Russian news said, also. So, it must be true that it’s what Putin said but who knows what Putin will actually do. Her husband has never served in the military and is ripe for conscription even though he’s a recent immigrant. Their family is considering moving to her husband’s birth country. She said Russian news says Europe is in chaos and about to revolt and that USA is in shambles and about to go bankrupt. She didn’t fully believe her country’s news and I told her what I knew from USA news. That Europe was doing fine although they’re paying more for heating fuel because Europe won’t buy Russian fuel in protest over the war. Food in Europe is plentiful. USA is doing fine. Jobs are hard to fill, and wages are going up quickly. Food is plentiful although more expensive. I just hope she doesn’t get in trouble for talking with me. #FingersCrossed

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