Malcolm Nance

Politifact struggles with Russia and its influence on the 2016 election

Politifact published an article on December 1st entitled, “Russia and its influence on the presidential election.”  I just read Malcolm Nance’s recent book on the subject, The Plot to Hack America.  Nance makes a compelling argument based on the evidence that Putin wanted Trump to win and the actions of the Russians helped insure that outcome.2785042_1468932798977

The Politifact article appeared initially to address the same question.  The original thesis of the article is:

To explore “the current evidence for and against” the claim that “Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.”  

The weight of the evidence the article offers is in support of this claim.  But the article does not mention this.  In the conclusion, the article shifts to a different question: whether it is “likely that actions by the Russian government contributed in any decisive way to Trump’s win over Clinton.”  The article suggests “based on the evidence, it seems unlikely.”  But the article did not consider any evidence on either side of this claim.  The article did not even mention the margin of victory in the election.

The article appears to cast doubt on the original thesis by rejecting a different thesis in the conclusion.  This is a fallacious form of reasoning described in logic as a straw man fallacy: it attempts to refute a claim (the first thesis) by distorting it.

I believe the problems with this article illustrate psychological tensions that are being felt across the country in the wake of the election and the Russian’s efforts to influence the outcome.  What follows is a critical analysis of the Politifact article that, among other things, attempts to evaluate the evidence the article offers for its original thesis.  This analysis attempts to be deconstructive in the sense that it appeals, in most cases, to the evidence outlined in the article itself.  What this analysis does not do is engage in any ad hominem attacks or name-calling or attempt in any way to undermine the work done by Politifact.  This analysis is offered as an effort to assist them in this important work.

Did Putin prefer Trump to Clinton?

The article cites five points in support of this claim:app_on_iphone

  1. Trump’s potential unwillingness to defend NATO allies.
  2. Trump’s support for Russia’s takeover of Crimea in Ukraine.
  3. Trump’s willingness to consider lifting sanctions against Russia.
  4. Putin does not like Clinton.
  5. Putin believes Clinton stoked protests in Russia surrounding its 2011 elections.

The article cites one point that questions the claim.

  1. Putin may not like Trump’s unpredictability, according to one research scientist at a think tank (Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, a think tank).

The weight of the evidence provided in the article is in favor of the conclusion Putin preferred Trump to Clinton.  However the article never mentions this.

The article quotes a professor at the University of Washington researching conspiracy theories in post-Soviet states named Scott Radnitz as saying, “Trump’s comments on Russia have been very unusual, strangely at odds with the dominant view of both parties in the U.S., but that’s literally all we know.”  Within the context of this article, this quote is literally false. The rest of the article proceeds to discuss what more we know: it, for example, describes the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign; it describes the different activities Russia engaged in that helped the Trump campaign.

The article, in fact, gives the reader the impression it is not likely that Putin preferred Trump.  It does this by shifting the thesis of the article.  It concludes suggesting it is unlikely that actions by the Russian government contributed in any “decisive way” to Trump’s victory.  This conclusion gives the reader the impression the original thesis of the article was also unlikely.  It does this notwithstanding the fact the article demonstrates the weight of the evidence suggests it is likely Putin preferred Trump.

Fake News

The article’s discussion of Fake News is fairly short and surprising.

Some Russian media websites, like RT and Sputnik, are known to have spread some fake or false news reports during the election.

For example, Sputnik published an article that said the Podesta email dump included certain incriminating comments about the Benghazi scandal, an allegation that turned out to be incorrect. Trump himself repeated this false story.

But claims that the Russian government called for these fake news articles are unproven.

It’s far more likely that these websites were being opportunistic, publishing them on their own accord to drive traffic, Gorenburg said.

The first thing that jumps out in this description is that Politifact does not describe RT and Sputnik as “state-funded.”  This is how these organizations are described in The Washington Post article that broke the story initially.

Some of these stories originated with RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the style and tone of independent news organizations yet sometimes include false and misleading stories in their reports, the researchers say.

The Politifact article describes RT and Sputnik as independent media outlets.  It implies there is no reason to believe these organizations are influenced by the Russian government. This is dangerously misleading.

The second problem is that Gorenburg fails to recognize that the option he suggests is more probable is also the one that best serves Putin’s interests.  Consider the alternatives: Putin gives an explicit order to all state-funded media outlets to take Hillary Clinton down; or Putin allows all state-funded medial outlets to take Hillary Clinton down on their own accord to drive traffic.  NPR reported that according to operators involved in the creation of Fake News, it does not work with Clinton supporters; but it works real well with Trump supporters.  So fake news can be effective driving traffic and generating ad revenue, and it can also be effective rallying support for Trump.  Putin knows this.

As a former KGB agent, Putin knows that it is often better to employ “useful idiots” than it is to actively direct intelligence assets.  This provides a layer of deniability.  No one will ever find any evidence that Putin told these media outlets to take Hillary Clinton down.  That would undermine the perception he is trying to cultivate that they are independent news organizations, like CNN.  That would, in turn, undermine their effectiveness as propaganda tools. The Washington Post article notes that,

Some players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were “useful idiots” — a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.

The “useful idiots” could easily include the Russians working at RT and Sputnik.  The question of whether the Russian government explicitly directed RT and Sputnik to circulate Fake News that hurt Hillary Clinton or whether it simply paid them to circulate Fake News that hurt Hillary Clinton is not relevant to the original thesis of the article: did the actions of the Russian government help Trump win?  Either way the answer is Yes.

simonyan-shows-rt-facilities-to-then-prime-minister-putin-simonyan-was-on-putins-2012-presidential-election-campaign-staff-in-moscow-rospress-22-september-2010-ria-novosti-25-october-2012

Simonyan shows RT facilities to then Prime Minister Putin.  Simonyan was on Putin’s 2012 presidential election campaign staff in Moscow (Rospress, 22 September 2010, Ria Novosti, 25 October 2012)

But we actually have evidence now those who work at RT and Sputnik are more than merely “useful idiots.”  Page 9 of the U. S. intelligence community’s January 6th report on the Russian effort to influence the election states,

RT Editor in Chief Margarita Simonyan has close ties to top Russian Government official, especially Presidential Administration Deputy Chief of Staff Aleksey Gromov, who reportedly manages political TV coverage in Russia and is one of the founders of RT.

 

The U. S. intelligence community has evidence RT‘s political coverage is managed by the Russian government.  It is concerned this influence will pose a greater threat to our country since RT is now developing content intending for American TV.

Bloomberg reported on February 16th,

The Kremlin ordered state media to cut back on their fawning coverage of President Donald Trump, reflecting a growing concern among senior Russian officials that the new U.S. administration will be less friendly than first thought, three people familiar with the matter said.

The order comes amid a growing chorus of anti-Russian sentiment in Washington, where U.S. spy and law-enforcement agencies are conducting multiple investigations to determine the full extent of contacts Trump’s advisers had with Russia during and after the 2016 election campaign.

Vladimir Putin’s administration justified the decision to curb coverage of Trump by saying that Russian viewers no longer find details of his transition to power interesting, according to one of the people. In reality, some of the most popular TV segments on Trump touched on ideas the Kremlin would rather not promote, such as his pledge to “drain the swamp,” the person said.

State media in Russia does what the Kremlin orders.  This is clear to the major news organizations in the Unites States and to the U. S. intelligence community.

Trump Campaign’s ties to Russia

The article described some of the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.  It mentions a beauty contest Trump put on in Russia.  But it says without tax returns we do not know the full extent of his business dealings with Russia.  It mentions that Trump’s first campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for Putin-backed Ukrainian politicians.  It mentions that Tump’s Foreign policy adviser, Carter Page, advised Russian gas giant Gazprom.  It also mentions Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, attended an RT gala with Putin.

But the article reports, “the FBI looked into the issue and found no evidence of a direct connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” according to news reports.  The article failed however to mention that one day after the election, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, CNN, Politico and the Wall Street Journal all reported that Russian officials were in contact with the Trump team during the campaign (4).  Bloomberg reported that, “Russia said it was in contact with President-elect Donald Trump’s team during the U. S. election campaign, despite repeated denials by the republican candidate’s advisers.” So we have reason to question the FBI’s finding that there was no clear link between Russia and the Trump campaign.

The Politifact article fails to mention that The New York Times article that reported there was no direct link between the Trump campaign and Russia, also reported that the FBI found a Trump organization server that was in continual contact with a Russian bank during the election. The bank involved is the Alpha Bank, the largest commercial bank in Russia.  Richard Burt sits on the board of the Alpha Bank.  He joined the Trump campaign at the request of Paul Manafort.  This article makes it clear the FBI did not confirm the content of the messages between the Trump server and the Alpha bank, as was the case with the Clinton emails. The article therefore provided evidence the FBI chose not to confirm whether there was or was not a direct link between the Trump campaign and Russia.

This section of the Politifact article closes with a quote: “Even if something is consistent with Russian government interests, it doesn’t mean the Russian government did it,” said Yoshiko Herrera, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Russia and former Soviet states.  This statement is another example of straw man fallacy. The thesis of the article is to explore whether “Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.” It is not to explore whether Putin determined the nature of the Trump campaign. I am not aware of anyone who is arguing in news articles or books that Putin determined the nature of the Trump campaign.

I am aware of books and news articles that maintain Putin “wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.” All the evidence provided in the section on the Trump Campaign’s ties to Russia supports this thesis. The article fails to make this clear. The quote at the end suggests the opposite is true.

Election Day Vote Tampering

The Politifact article states that it is not clear whether the perpetrators that hacked voter registration data in Arizona were directed by the Russian government or if they were private criminals.  However, a New York Times article that reported this story stated,

Matt Roberts, a spokesman for Arizona’s secretary of state, said the F.B.I. had told state officials that Russians were behind the Arizona attack.

This quote is from a New York Times article that was not listed among the many that were used as sources for the story (listed below).

The Politifact article then goes on to say,

Some computer scientists flagged anomalies in the results of several counties that used electronic voting in three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — prompting calls for recounts. But claims that Russians are to blame for these vote tally anomalies, through hacking or other means, are baseless.

The article gives the reader no idea of what these anomalies are or why they have raised concerns.  Below you can see one of the reasons why recounts are being requested WI, PA, MI.  The second column in the table below lists the electoral votes for each state, the third lists the chances of victory according to FiveThirtyEight, the fourth lists the average of the polls according to FiveThirtyEight, the fifth lists the percentage of the vote according to RealClearPolitics.  There is a large difference between the chances of victory and the average of the polls in each state, and the vote.  In each state, Trump out performs the polls by between 4.4% and 8.5% and by just enough to win in each state.

State                            EV     %V                  Polls    Votes
Michigan                    16       C78.9              C4.1    T.3
Pennsylvania            20       C77                 C3.9    T1.3
Wisconsin                  10       C83.9              C5.9    T2.6

Any judgement as to whether Russian efforts to influence the US election are behind these anomalies needs to take into account a number of pieces of evidence.

  1. The FBI reports in August of Russian hackers penetrating the voter information data base in Arizona.
  2. The evidence that Russia used a software program in an attempt to steal votes in the Ukraine election in 2014, just two years ago. Paul Manaforte was advising the Ukraine president at the time.
  3. A report by the Atlantic Council details how Russia has been using a combination of overt and covert means to foster the rise of pro-Russian political parties in several Western European countries, including Britain, France and German.
  4. All the US intelligence agencies agree Russia was behind the hacking the emails of the DNC and John Podesta.
  5. The Washington Post uncovered evidence that media outlets funded by Russia were circulating Fake News stories that served to undermine the Clinton campaign.

This evidence gives us an understanding of the comprehensive approach Russia has begun to take in order to influence elections around the world.  This evidence demonstrates that Russia does have an ability and an inclination to use software programs to tamper with votes in elections.  It demonstrates that Russia did try to influence the US election with counterintelligence.  This gives us a clear reason to think they may have also attempted to tamper with the votes in this election like they attempted to do in the Ukraine two years ago.  This concern is not “baseless.”

So what does all this mean?

The article concludes stating, “Based on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that actions by the Russian government contributed in any decisive way to Trump’s win over Clinton.”  As mentioned earlier, this claim is clearly different from the original thesis of the article: exploring the evidence for and against the claim that “Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.”  The article does not offer any evidence for or against the claim that the Russian influence on the election was definitive in determining the winner.

If, for example, we were going to consider the question addressed in the last section we would have to consider the margin of victory.  The Politifact article does not mention that although Clinton won the popular vote by over two and a half million votes, Trump won the electoral college by fewer than 100,000 votes in three states: MI, PA, and WI.  If one were going to make an argument that the Russian influence on the election was not definitive, then one would have to argue that all the Fake News stories Russia helped circulate and all the emails they hacked and leaked could not change less than 100,000 votes.  One thing we do know is the Politifact article does not attempt to make this argument.       

If we return to the original thesis of the Politifact article, we are forced to conclude that the weight of the evidence provided makes it more probable that “Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.”  We already considered the evidence for the first part of the thesis: did Putin want Trump to win?  How about the last part: did politifact-logo-mynews13Putin’s actions during the election help ensure that Trump would win?  The article only considers two pieces of evidence here:

  1. The fact that Russia was behind the hacking of the emails from the DNC and John Podesta.
  2. The fact that Russian news outlets circulated fake news stories that undermined the Clinton campaign.

The article did not provide any evidence Russia tried to influence the election in any manner that could be construed as helping the Clinton campaign.  All the evidence provided in the article supports the conclusion the actions of the Russian government during the election helped ensure Trump would win.   The vast majority of the evidence considered supports the conclusion Putin wanted Trump to win.  Instead of informing the reader of these conclusions, the article invents a new thesis in the last section and suggests it is unlikely.  So what does all this mean?  I see at least three things at work.

First, while I wrote this piece, I watched a video on the Politifact website of the staff reading some of the messages they get from the public.  They get angry and abusive messages from all sides all the time and it is not pretty.  It is not constructive.  It just makes their job more difficult.  They are under a lot of pressure.

Second, the article lists one journalist as the researcher and writer.  The movie Spotlight describes a team of reporters investigating the catholic church in order to find the truth.  It also calls attention to the value of this kind of investigative journalism.  It is a form of journalism that is disappearing as newspapers try to move online.  It is just what is needed to investigate the questions addressed in the Politifact article.

In fact, one could argue the issues this article addresses warrant more than just one investigative journalist, or team, but a group of teams working together.  The Manhattan Project that created the atom bomb is an example of what is referred to as Big Science: when scientists work together to address a question or problem.  One could argue we need a kind of Big Journalism to address the questions raised by the 2016 election.  The Washington Post quoted researchers saying efforts by individual news outlets to correct all the Fake News out there are like “shouting into a hurricane.”  If the truth is going to be heard at all, in this post-truth storm, we are going to need more organizations like Politifact.  We need all hands on deck if the truth is going to be heard in all this heavy weather.

Finally, we can also suspect that it is going to be difficult for US citizens and journalists to accept the idea Nance describes in his book: that Russia just successfully executed a comprehensive counterintelligence program intended to get Trump elected — they whipped us good and took a whole lot more than our lunch money.  This is difficult for anyone to accept.  This difficulty might lead us to make all kinds of unconscious accommodations.  The staff at Politifact are clearly uncomfortable acknowledging the evidence suggests it is likely “Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome.”  They are clearly more comfortable concluding, “it seems highly unlikely that actions by the Russian government contributed in any decisive way to Trump’s win over Clinton.”  By subtly shifting to a thesis with a different and higher standard of proof, Politifact can avoid acknowledging a difficult truth.  Humans do this all the time.  The logical fallacies outlined serve as evidence of the psychological accommodations they made to deal with this tension.  They are not alone.  People all around the country are dealing with unique levels of cognitive dissonance.  I see this article as being a provocative illustration of it.

The Politifact article makes it clear at the outset that, “investigations may reveal more later” and it concludes with a quote from Gorenburg: “regardless of the extent of the impact we should be concerned about the attempt.  It is something to investigate regardless of whether we think it affected the result.”  The article never claims to provide the final word and it emphasizes the need for further research.  We need to understand Russia’s influence on the presidential election in order to make the changes necessary to protect our democracy in the future.  2018 is right around the corner.

Updates

December 5th – this analysis was emailed to Politifact.

December 10th – The Washington Post published a story establishing that the “consensus view” of the U.S. intelligence community is that Russia interfered with the election in order to help Trump win.  The original thesis of the Politifact article is therefore consistent with the “consensus view” of the U.S. intelligence community.

At some point after the 10th, Politifact added the update below to their article:

Editor’s note: Since we published this story, the question of Russia’s role has come under additional questioning. The Washington Post reported Dec. 9 that the CIA concluded Russia meddled in the election with the intent to help Trump, rather than to disrupt the election generally. The New York Times produced a similar report. However, the Washington Post also reported that the FBI isn’t as confident in this conclusion. These stories are all based on anonymous sources and cannot be independently verified.

This update is not accurate.  The CIA did not conclude that Russia meddled in the election with “the intent to help Trump, rather than to disrupt the election generally.”  The CIA concluded that it is probable the Russians were seeking both goals.

Politifact made no change to the article other than adding this update.  So far there is been no reply to the analysis.

December 16th – The Washington Post publishes an article that states FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper have backed a CIA assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election in part to help Donald Trump to win the presidency.

By the end of the day on the 16th, Politifact had not updated their update or made any changes to the article to reflect this new development.

December 19th, 4:04pm eastern time — There is still been no change to the article.

Sources

for “Russia and its influence on the presidential election,” Politifact, Lauren Carroll, December 1, 2016.

Brookings, “3 reasons Russia’s Vladimir Putin might want to interfere in the U.S. presidential elections,” Aug. 3, 2016

Bloomberg, “Trump’s New Russia Adviser Has Deep Ties to Kremlin’s Gazprom,” March 30, 2016

New York Times, “To Democrats, Email Hack Suggests Trump Has New Supporter: Putin,” July 25, 2016

New York Times, “Private Security Group Says Russia Was Behind John Podesta’s Email Hack,” Oct. 20, 2016

New York Times, “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” Oct. 31, 2016

New York Times, “Russian Officials Were in Contact With Trump Allies, Diplomat Says,” Nov. 10, 2016

New York Times, “U.S. Officials Defend Integrity of Vote, Despite Hacking Fears,” Nov. 25, 2016

Politico, “Why Putin hates Hillary,” July 25, 2016

Washington Post, “Russian hackers targeted Arizona election system,” Aug. 29, 2016

Washington Post, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” Nov. 24, 2016

Washington Post, “Here’s what we know about Donald Trump and his ties to Russia,” July 29, 2016

Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, “Here’s how Trump’s election will affect U.S.-Russian relations,” Nov. 10, 2016

Washington Post’s Monkey Cage, “Did Russian hackers elect the U.S. president? Don’t believe the hype.,” Nov. 24, 2016

The Intercept, “Washington Post Disgracefully Promotes a McCarthyite Blacklist From a New, Hidden, and Very Shady Group,” Nov. 26, 2016

PolitiFact, “Donald Trump is right about Putin’s popularity in Russia,” Dec. 20, 2015

PolitiFact, “What we know about Russia’s role in the DNC email leak,” July 31, 2016

PolitiFact, “Experts say Donald Trump’s ‘policies’ dovetail with what Vladimir Putin would like for Russia,” Sept. 22, 2016

PolitiFact, “Hillary Clinton blames high-up Russians for WikiLeaks releases,” Oct. 19, 2016

PolitiFact, “Are the Clinton WikiLeaks emails doctored, or are they authentic?” Oct. 23, 2016

PolitiFact, “Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s top adviser, and his ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine,” May 2, 2016

Email interview, Scott Radnitz, University of Washington professor, Nov. 30, 2016

Phone interview, CNA analyst Dmitry Gorenburg, Nov. 30, 2016

Phone interview, Yoshiko Herrera, University of Wisconsin – Madison professor, Dec. 1, 2016

 

 

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