National Commentary

The Secret of Russian Propaganda

Next Wednesday, Nov. 1, Facebook and Twitter executives will be among those called to appear before a congressional committee looking into how the Russians used their electronic platforms, and others, to influence the 2017 U.S. presidential election.

This probe could be among the most important, game-changing inquiries in modern U.S. history, if its potential is fully exploited. That is, it will represent, at least potentially, a unique window into just how America’s adversaries work to bend the minds of ostensibly freedom-loving citizens into acting against their own actual self-interests in behalf of an alien objective.

In this “art,” if you will, the Russians over more than the last century, consider themselves highly sophisticated and skilled, and indeed they are. The “art” involves subtlety and nuance, and the more investigators try to reduce it down to lowest-common-denominator terms, the more they’ll miss the opportunity to correct the problem.

This fine art of persuasion utilizes some of the time-worn techniques of deception often mastered in truly amazing ways sometimes by your dimestore con artist. What sociopathic con artists often have an uncanny ability to do is tap into the inner fears and longings of potential victims to tell them what they want to hear, and by so doing figure out how to separate them from their cash and other valuables.

This art is too often dismissed as common and unimportant. But it is the art that Madison Avenue spends billions on trying to get people to spend those bucks on something they may not really need, but from which they can gain some psychological satisfaction.

Maybe this is why America has become so susceptible to the cons of a hostile foreign power, in fact. Our culture has become saturated by all sorts of cons to the point that nobody truly knows anymore where truth lets off and wishful thinking begins. Is that Ford truck really better for the potential buyer than a Chevy, or does the buyer really need either one?

It has almost become indicative of our culture these days for people to allow themselves to be conned, to be lured into unconstructive actions or behavior in the name of self-aggrandizement or guilty pleasures. We don’t feel we need to handle unfiltered truths any more, they’re too stressful. So everything gets sugar-coated a little, or a lot. How much of the nation’s opioid epidemic can be traced, at least in part, to this pervasive socio-cultural trend?

Here’s what the our adversaries count on to dupe us: our own unfulfilled or unrealistic expectations.

Dammit, there’s not enough of this or that. Turn that sentiment into petulant anger, like a two-year-old, and you have the “secret sauce” capable of motivating a person to act against their own real self-interest.

So, how many of these fake Russian ads on the Internet invoke false expectations and anger? How many are aimed at turning the unsatisfied viewer against their own government, against democracy itself, in the name of instant gratification, that gratification which can come from either casting an angry protest vote at the ballot box, or by denouncing the democratic system, altogether, by refusing to even vote.

The role of superstition is important to this, superstitions that take almost any form, including religious ones, or those that persuade you that you can, indeed, win the lottery.

They’re all based on a cruel hoax that the expectant victim is willing to go along with in hopes of some fantastical reward.

They all require one thing in common, that the mind be turned off. The ability of the rational faculties of the mind to discern the best, most reasonable pathway to concrete improvement is tuned out, and some form of absolute, if irrational, outcome is substituted, like a wasted vote for a marginal candidate or an act of self-destructive violence.

Don’t even try to reason with such people. They know what they hate and what they want. No persuading them otherwise, and therein lies the real problem: The refusal to accept the merits of rational arguments is what cuts us off from constructive change and is what the Russians are trying to do to us.


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at