How Russian “Fake News” Hardened America’s Divide

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January 14, 2020

As the 2020 election looms, U.S. intelligence agencies are facing a continuing challenge: how to identify and combat disinformation efforts by Russian cyber operatives who have reportedly grown more sophisticated since an infamous interference campaign in America’s 2016 presidential election.

A Jan. 2020 FRONTLINE documentary series examines the lasting consequences of that Russian hacking and disinformation campaign, which exploited America’s divisions — with amplification by right-wing media and Donald Trump himself.

“Vladimir Putin certainly has our number as a country,” Steve Schmidt, a former GOP strategist, tells FRONTLINE in the above excerpt from America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, a series on how America’s polarized politics came to be. “He understood how easily Americans could be turned against each other with Facebook. What Facebook does is obliterate the ability to tell the lie from truth. Where what is real; what is fake, is not discernible and not knowable. And the consequences of that for a democratic republic are frightening at best to think about.”

As the above excerpt traces, Russia’s multi-prong attack initially involved a generalized attempt to sow discord and chaos along all sides of America’s fault lines as the election approached.

“There were divides, and Russia was pushing out material that exploited those divides, that broadened them, that called attention to those divides,” Greg Miller of The Washington Post tells FRONTLINE.

Then, as the film shows, the attack evolved.

It became an effort in favor of Donald Trump, according to the U.S. intelligence community, in which Russian operatives planted and spread “fake news” about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The fake stories — in particular, conspiracy theories about Clinton’s health — caught on, and then-candidate Trump fanned the flames.

As “the flood of these misleading or outright false stories was increasing,” former conservative radio host Charlie Sykes tells FRONTLINE, he noticed a consequential change.

“In the past,” Sykes tells FRONTLINE in the above clip, “I’d always been able to push back on my audience and say, ‘Okay, you understand this is not true. This is not the case. There are not bodies stacked up in the Clinton library, and here’s the source of all that.’ By late 2016, though, I was no longer able to do that. People were not willing to accept the corrections. And Donald Trump is counting on this, and this does fundamentally change our politics.”

In addition to the disinformation campaign, the U.S. intelligence community has concluded that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager.

For more, watch the full series from filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team. As the 2020 election year unfolds, America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump traces the growth of a toxic political environment that has paralyzed Washington and dramatically deepened the gulf between Americans — and reveals how truth itself has become part of the divide.

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part One:

Stream America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump, Part Two:

America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump is streaming in full on this page, at pbs.org and on the PBS Video App. The series premiered Mon., Jan. 13 and Tues, Jan. 14, 2020. As part of the FRONTLINE Transparency Project, you can also explore more than 20 extended interviews with sources from the making of the series who offer in-depth accounts of history unfolding.

This story was updated to include an embed of the full documentary once it became available to stream online, as well as details on when it first aired.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Senior Digital Writer, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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