How Russia got Americans to do its dirty work

For decades now, Russian security services have studied a concept called “reflexive control”—the science of how to get your enemies to make mistakes. To be successful, practitioners must first analyze their opponents deeply, to understand where they get their information and why they trust it; then they need to find ways of playing with those trusted sources, in order to insert errors and mistakes. This way of thinking has huge implications for the military; consider how a piece of incorrect information might get a general to make a mistake. But it works in politics too. The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn’t very hard) that large numbers of Americans—not only Fox News pundits and OANN broadcasters but also members of Congress—are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it. As long as it suits their partisan frames, and as long as it can be used against their opponents, they don’t care who invented it or for what purpose.

As a result, supplying an edited audiotape or a piece of false evidence to one of the bottom-feeders of the information ecosystem is incredibly easy; after that, others will ensure that it rises up the food chain. Russian disinformation doesn’t succeed thanks to the genius of Russians; it succeeds thanks to the sharp partisanship of Americans. Russian disinformation works because Americans allow it to work—and because those same Americans don’t care anymore about the harm they do to their country.