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Story highlights

Nimmo: The Kremlin's media and hacker networks are providing Trump with ammunition; Trump and his supporters are using it

Beyond the murky question of attributing bot and cyborg activity, the pattern is clear

Editor’s Note: Ben Nimmo is a UK-based analyst of disinformation and information warfare. He is a former journalist for Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and worked from 2011 to 2014 as a press officer at NATO, specializing in relations with Russia and Ukraine. He is a senior fellow of the Institute for Statecraft in London and the Atlantic Council in Washington. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

Donald Trump is right that someone is trying to rig the US election, but it is not Hillary Clinton: it is the Kremlin, and Trump is an accomplice, whether or not he realizes it.

Trump has parroted at least one allegation which began in the Kremlin media. He has benefited from Kremlin-linked hackers, and there are hints that his online support is being influenced by Russian-linked social media accounts.

Searching for Google’s guilt

Trump has long argued that the electoral system is rigged against him. Usually, his accusations are so sweeping that it is hard to know what exactly he has in mind – targeting the “disgusting and corrupt media” or the “100 percent crooked” system of primaries, for example.

But on September 28 he came out with a much more specific allegation, claiming that Google has been “suppressing the bad news about Hillary Clinton.”

Claims that Google’s auto-complete feature is rigged to conceal bad news about Clinton had been reported by a number of conservative American media outlets in September, including Breitbart, Infowars and Fox. We cannot say for certain which outlet was the immediate source of Trump’s claim.

But all three of those outlets attributed their reports to a single source: an exclusive article written for Sputnik by psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein on September 12. “It seems reasonable to conjecture that Google employees manually suppress negative search suggestions relating to Clinton,” Epstein wrote.

The remarkable thing about Epstein’s claim is how it seems to have gained traction despite questionable origins. Epstein’s recent piece in Sputnik was apparently prompted by a video posted to the SourceFed YouTube channel in June. That video credited an August, 2015 Wired magazine article that had given major signal boost to a 2015 study on the theory whose lead author was – you guessed it – Robert Epstein.

That 2015 study, however, was published in the journal PNAS, which has, historically, had a reputation for a sometimes less-than-thorough peer review process. How did a piece of questionable academic merit get so much media coverage?

So, the trigger for Epstein’s 2016 Sputnik article was a video; one trigger for the video was Epstein’s 2015 research, published on PNAS. This does not, of itself, disprove Epstein’s Google claim (though Bloomberg later did so); it does create the impression that he is rather a lone voice in academia.

Another odd thing here is the number of times that Sputnik and its sister TV outlet, RT (the former Russia Today), had already reported on Epstein’s theories. Six months before he published his Sputnik piece, RT ran a 10-minute interview with him, at a time when Clinton’s main rival was Democratic contender Bernie Sanders. The interview was a classic of the RT genre, with presenter Afshin Rattansi treating Epstein’s controversial claims as if they had already been proven: “Given that Sanders scored a 35% swing, maybe, in Michigan, I mean, it hasn’t worked so well for Clinton, has it?”

RT interviewed Epstein again on April 8, titling the interview “Google will steal this election and how.” Sputnik then interviewed him on May 13, August 12 and September 3, before running his article on September 12 – not just in English, but in Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish, French, Japanese and Russian.

In short, the Kremlin’s media have been pushing Epstein’s message of Google bias for at least six months. On September 28, the effort paid off.

Ask Assange

Julian Assange
Carl Court/Getty Images
Julian Assange

Returning to the YouTube video, Epstein’s paper was not the only source quoted. The second source was an article in the Belfast Telegraph dated June 7, just two days before the video came out. The article quoted WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange as saying, “Google is directly engaged with Hillary Clinton’s campaign… Google is heavily integrated with Washington power.”

Assange’s attack on Google is not new. He began accusing former Google CEO Eric Schmidt of being an accessory of the US State Department in 2014. On October 30, 2015 he claimed that Google was Clinton’s “secret weapon.”

But again, the quote carried in the Belfast Telegraph came thanks to Sputnik. Assange was speaking via video link to a conference in Moscow, organized by Sputnik’s parent company Rossiya Segodnya, and reported by both Sputnik and RT. RT (which employed Assange as a presenter for 11 shows in 2012) went on to run a “Julian Assange special” on August 6, in which he defended Trump against charges of improper ties with Russia and accused Clinton of the same.

And of course, in July, WikiLeaks wrought political havoc in the Democratic Party by publishing hacked emails from the Democratic National Convention, while in October it targeted Clinton with a massive publication of hacked emails from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. According to both official and unofficial investigators, the hackers behind those leaks were linked to the Russian government.

So, just as with Epstein, the Kremlin’s propaganda outlets have given Assange a platform for his attacks on Google and Clinton – even while hackers linked to the Russian government gave WikiLeaks ammunition against Clinton.

Send in the cyborgs

Russian President Vladimir Putin
ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin’s media have also validated Trump’s claim that the election will be rigged at polling stations. Two weeks ago, they reported that the US had “barred Russian monitors” from the poll; RT and Russian-language outlets quoted the head of the Russian Central Election Commission’s department for international relations as saying that the US rejection “reminded him of the Cold War.” Subsequently, the State Department dismissed the claims as “nothing but a PR stunt,” while Politico disproved the Russian claim that its offer of observers to individual states had been rejected with “very harsh formulas.”

This Kremlin claim appears not to have penetrated the electoral debate so effectively. It was widely mocked on social media; but mixed with the mockery were comments of outrage from Trump supporters, suggesting that RT’s reports had had at least some impact.

Moreover, social media are themselves a battleground for influence in the election, and there are hints that the Kremlin may be attempting to shift the debate there with a network of fake, automated (“bot”) and semi-automated (“cyborg”) accounts.

The prime example is the now-notorious case in which Trump read out a quote from a leaked email, purportedly from Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal, saying that she was responsible for the death of four US diplomats in Benghazi in 2011.

The quote was actually written by Newsweek journalist Kurt Eichenwald, who debunked Trump’s claim and traced it back to a Sputnik article (now deleted). According to Eichenwald’s follow-up piece, “American intelligence determined that the false document (…) was originally altered by a Russian operative and fed onto the internet through Reddit. From there, it was picked up and tweeted as part of a coordinated Russian campaign.”

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The Russian origin of Trump’s quote has not yet been confirmed by open sources; given the opaque nature of Twitter accounts in particular, there is no guarantee that it ever will be. However, research has identified the Twitter account which began circulating the quote online, and the network of accounts which sent it viral. Of those, one is clearly a bot; several appear to be cyborgs; and one, at least, was following a number of Russian government and Russian-language accounts in October, although it has since unfollowed them. This is not enough to prove Eichenwald’s contention that the quote which Trump read out was publicized by a “coordinated Russian campaign,” but it certainly does not disprove it, either.

Beyond the murky question of attributing bot and cyborg activity, though, the pattern is clear. The Kremlin’s media and hacker networks are providing the Trump campaign with ammunition, and Trump and his supporters are using it. In that sense, the Kremlin is trying to rig America’s election.