CIA Russia hacking report, Twitter Sarcasm and the Prospects of Russia-U.S. Relations

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By Aleksandra Serebriakova, a 3rd year International Relations student at King’s College London with a strong interest in post-Soviet Union space and Russia in particular.

On the 6th January the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released the unclassified report that openly accused Russia of interfering in the U.S. presidential elections. The report argued that findings were based on the “understanding of Russian behavior” in its “longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order” and preconditioned by Russia’s “clear preference for President-elect Trump”, but nevertheless did not argue that hacking affected the election results.

The whole language of the Report was supported by the logic of ‘judgements’ rather than hard evidence through analyses of the CIA and two other agencies (FBA and NASA). This absence of strong evidence was explained by inability to “reveal sensitive sources or methods and imperil the ability to collect critical foreign intelligence in the future”. Thus, the Report has stated that the campaign to undermine U.S. presidential elections was ordered directly by Vladimir Putin who wanted to “denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency”. What is more, Russia’s military intelligence agency and its Main Intelligence Agency of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) has been accused for directing the hacks into the emails of Democratic Party officials and released them with a help of Guccifer 2.0 hacker through Wikileaks and DCLeaks.com beginning in March 2016. Notwithstanding the fact that this kind of reporting would be ridiculous in any other democratic country, as it would confirm that administration itself had a “clear preference” for the Presidential candidate ignoring the desires of its own population, two interesting points can be picked up from this Report: U.S. open advertising of ‘Russia Today’s’ (RT) ability to influence American population and reaction of Russia’s officials to these findings that has often been sarcastic and undiplomatic.

Firstly, due to inability to provide strong evidence the Report had to explain Russia’s alleged influence through its ‘covert intelligence operations’ and ‘over propaganda efforts’ with a help of Russian Government agencies, paid social media users (internet ‘trolls’) and state-funded media, with RT and Sputnik news outlets being examples of this ‘propaganda machine’. Seven pages of unclassified version of the Report were devoted to assessing RT America TV’s activities in relation to “undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest”. Without profoundly discussing RT’s efforts to meddle in the current election and only briefly touching upon its ‘negative’ portrayal of Hilary Clinton and open support for Donald Trump, the short Report devotes a substantial part to the discussion of the channels attempts to “fuel political protests” during Occupy Wall Street movement and rise criticism on the U.S. economic and political systems. Overall, the Report presents RT America as some kind of international criminal syndicate with enormous power and financial connection to Russian Government. The argument that “RT recently was the most-watched foreign news channel in the UK” and the tables of comparison that present this channel as the most popular on YouTube out of foreign broadcasting companies (image 1) has caused a stream of comments and jokes from the Russian officials.

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Image 1: Comparative Tables from ODNI Report, Appex A

Thus, the Russian Embassy in London claimed that the Report findings have been the best advertising for RT (image 2). Indeed, RT preferences for Trump were clear from the start but how can the coverage of one channel that has a clear connection to the foreign government be argued to have such an enormous power to indirectly influence election process in a sovereign country? While RT should definitely be grateful to this Report for its promotion, we still should be willing to get some more evidence in support for the existing accusations. Otherwise, it all too sounds more as a Cold War scare.

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Image 2: Twitter of the Russian Embassy in London, 7th January 2017

What is more, the reactions of Russia’s officials to this Report were not at all surprising. Seen as another groundless attempt to discriminate Russia in the eyes of international community following the traditions of doping scandal and McLaren report, CIA report was met with sarcastic comments from Russian officials. Thus, Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary of Putin, called the accusations on Russia’s involvement in hacking a “witch hunt” and said that Obama’s administration is “behaving like an elephant in china shop”; while Maria Zakharova, a Director of the Press Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called Obama’s team in Facebook “a group of foreign policy losers, anxious and short-sighted”. At the same time, Russian Embassy in the UK called the Report a “pathetic attempt at tainting American’s vote by innuendo coached in Intel new-speak” (image 3) but also posted a bunch of memes in Twitter mocking the Report and Obama administration for its efforts to unleash the Cold War.

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Image 3: Twitter of the Russian Embassy in London, 7th January 2017

What is so telling about such an active engagement of Russian officials with Twitter and Facebook in such an ‘undiplomatic’ way? In 2015 Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin have argued that Russia was one of the most successful countries to accommodate the chaotic dynamic of social media and user-led content that for some time upset policy-makers ability to influence and control information. In particular, they argued that Russia was successful in “arresting the mainstream media” through its engagement with Twitter, Facebook and VK by allowing only certain parts of the conflict, such as the one in Ukraine, to be visible and framed in a certain way. Russia’s open engagement with social media allows mediatization of conflicts and disagreements and is trying to be especially proactive in promoting its own definitions of how certain disagreements should be seen and which side should be blamed for their existence (well, definitely not Russian). The Twitter and Facebook comments of Russian officials on hacking claims has signified a change in the platform for diplomatic exchanges and showed how influential it might be for promoting a particular view especially when sarcasm, the competition of memes and social media logic of shareability are present.

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Image 4: Twitter of the Russian Embassy in London, 29th December 2016

All of these raise a question over the prospects of future Russia-U.S. relations. While during the last press-conference Barak Obama called Russia “a smaller and weaker country”, which nevertheless was able to meddle with the U.S. elections through hacking processes, new sanctions against Russian officials and diplomats summed up the last two years of Obama’s administration unsuccessful politics towards Russia. At the same time, Trump’s position over Russian involvement into the election process was ambiguous. While his Twitter praised Putin’s decision not to expel the U.S. diplomats in reciprocal measures by tweeting that he always knew that Putin was very smart, at the same time condemning findings of the hacking report, his positions somehow changed after few days when he actually agreed that the hacking took place, but due to the “gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee” that would never happen again when he becomes the president. Russian press such as independent Novaya Gazeta news outlet has suggested that such change in the rhetoric is occurring mainly due to the pressures Trump is experiencing from his own Republican party and other officials that take hacking report seriously and do not share his admiration for Putin. Overall, it is clear that unpredictability of the next American president and the pressures he will be experiencing in the White House might force him to completely change the rhetoric in a more anti-Putin and anti-Russian way that will definitely be followed by reciprocal tweets and Facebook posts from Russian officials in even more sarcastic manner.

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