On April 16, 2015, one month after Russian soldiers entered eastern Ukraine and joined Moscow-backed separatists in the slaughter of more than 130 Ukrainian troops in a town called Debaltseve, Russian President Vladimir Putin continued to perpetuate a claim that was growing increasingly ludicrous. “I can tell you outright and unequivocally that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine,” he declared in a broadcast to the Russian people.
The denial was a classic propaganda move. “The first Russian approach to negative reporting or comment is to dismiss it, either by denying the allegations on the ground, or denigrating the one who makes them,” writes Ben Nimmo, a British-based analyst of Russian information warfare and strategy. Specifically, this approach is an example of dismissal, one of four distinct ways the Putin government tries to spin facts and misinform the public, as identified by Nimmo. He calls it the 4D Approach: dismiss, distract, distort, and dismay.
Though Putin has put these tactics to good use, he did not invent them. Nor is he the only image-conscious, scrutiny-averse world leader to employ them. Over the past months, President-elect Donald Trump has also proved adept at using the propaganda techniques Nimmo describes. “The fact that the Trump campaign is doing the same kind of thing does not necessarily mean that they got it from Russia. These techniques are pretty universal; it’s just there’s a commonality of approach,” Nimmo says.
Some examples of The Donald’s mastery of the four Ds of propaganda:
Dismiss: Dismissing uncomfortable allegations or facts is second nature to most politicians. When nine women accused Trump of groping or kissing them without their consent, he first accused Hillary Clinton’s campaign of orchestrating the allegations. A day later, during the third presidential debate, he claimed, falsely, “Those stories have been largely debunked.”
Throughout his campaign, Trump repeatedly dismissed the press as “scum,” “horrible people,” and “dishonest.” In the week since winning the election, he has taken to Twitter on six occasions to excoriate the New York Times and its coverage, casting it as “very poor” and “highly inaccurate.” Unsurprisingly, as Philip Bump of the Washington Post points out, Trump’s complaints about the New York Times are most commonly about stories that have proved true. But, dismissal plays well with Trump’s supporters, who are already inclined to distrust the mainstream media. “Why would you listen to your critic if he is intrinsically not worth listening to?” notes Nimmo.
Distract: Another way propagandists dodge facts is to throw out distracting stories or counterclaims. For example, when Western countries condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2015, the Kremlin shot back by claiming that NATO did the same thing with Kosovo during the late 1990s. That wasn’t accurate, but, as Nimmo explains, “The point is not to convince anyone, the point is to put you on the back foot.”
Trump’s standout moment of distraction came when he was asked about the Access Hollywood video during the second presidential debate. Rather than addressing his taped boasts of grabbing women “by the pussy”, he went after Bill Clinton. “There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that’s been so abusive to women,” he said. Then he pivoted to Hillary Clinton, accusing her of attacking her husband’s accusers “viciously” and claimed that as a lawyer, she once laughed at a 12-year-old rape victim. Clinton responded by quoting Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.” This was a smart response to Trump’s distraction techniques. “A reasonable person’s response is going to be, ‘No I didn’t,'” Nimmo says. “As soon as you’ve done that, the distraction technique has worked because the conversation has shifted from what they did to what you did.”
Distort: If you don’t like the facts, invent your own. Long after it was shown that a Russian missile shot a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014, Russia presented doctored satellite imagery to claim that a Ukrainian aircraft shot down the civilian jet.
As has been well documented, Trump is shameless about distorting his (and other people’s) record. (Trump has earned three full pages of Pants on Fire ratings from Politifact.) Let’s look at his claims about his yearslong crusade to prove that President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. In September, Trump said he believed the president was born in the United States and tried to pin the ugly birther episode on Clinton. “Her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy,” Trump claimed. “I finished it.”
Dismay: The final tool in the propagandists tool kit is the least subtle. “If you don’t like what somebody is planning politically, scare them off,” Nimmo explains. For example, in October, Norway agreed to host 330 US Marines for a training deployment. Russia responded by threatening to add Norway to its nuclear strike list. (So far, Norway hasn’t backed down.)
Trump’s use of this tactic could be heard in the mantralike “Lock her up!” chants at his campaign rallies. At the second debate, he openly threatened Clinton, warning her that, “If I win I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation.” When she responded that it was “awfully good” that someone with Trump’s temperament was not in charge of the law in the country, he interjected, “Because you’d be in jail.”
Even as Trump slings propaganda like a pro, he’s also susceptible to it. During the first presidential debate, Trump said Google “was suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton.” He didn’t cite a source for that information, but the claim had been kicking around in conservative media outlets, including Breitbart, InfoWars, and Fox. They attributed it back to Sputnik News, a Russian government-controlled news agency, which two weeks before the debate had published a report written by the psychologist Robert Epstein that claimed Google’s search suggestions were biased in Clinton’s favor.
The Sputnik report was prompted by a viral video released in June that claimed Google was actively altering search recommendations to benefit Clinton. (Search engine optimization experts quickly debunked the video.) Interestingly, that video credited a 2015 Wired article about research conducted by the same author of the Sputnik report—Epstein. Nimmo dug into the story and found that a full six months before Sputnik ran the report, both Sputnik and its sister television outlet, Russia Today, started reporting on Epstein’s controversial claims as if they were already proven, interviewing him five times before Sputnik released its big report in English and seven other languages.
The ultimate purpose of all this—the 4Ds, the phony news stories, and the trolls and bots that amplify them—isn’t so much to prove a particular set of facts, but rather to distort information so that no one knows what to believe. This uncertainty benefits the propaganda pusher, whether it is Trump or the Kremlin. “The point is to get people so emotional and so confused that they give up on the debate. And once you’ve done that, you’ve silenced the voice of a potential critic,” says Nimmo. “If they can do it long enough and if people generally switch off from the mainstream media, it gets so much easier to spread the lies.”
What’s more, this approach works even when the lies are debunked. “The issue, which is seriously real, is literally tailor-made to be dismissed as conspiracy theory and therefore ignored,” says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who now works at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm. “That’s that whole point of the Russian effort. Create enough doubt for everything so that when the proof comes it is washed in the same disdain for all alleged truth.”
“Sometimes when fake news is debunked, among certain circles it actually gives it more legitimacy,” says Aric Toler, an analyst at Bellingcat, an open-source investigative outlet. “It’s the, ‘This is what they don’t want you to know,’ argument.” To effectively combat it, each fake story has to be turned inside out and transparently debunked at every step. News stories that quote experts won’t convince skeptics, says Toler. His advice for the news media: “Assume you have no credibility.” Perhaps Obama said it best in a post-election interview with The New Yorker: Our new information landscape “means everything is true and nothing is true.”