‘Agents of Chaos’ focuses on a Russian troll farm and Vladimir Putin’s impact on the 2016 election

Election Day is less than two months away. There’s already a repeat of the disinformation campaigns Russia waged four years ago. HBO’s new documentary “ Agents of Chaos ” looks at the early days of the Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and how America was unprepared for their attacks.  

KCRW speaks with Alex Gibney, who wrote, produced and directed “Agents of Chaos;” plus Camille Francois, a cyber conflict researcher featured in the documentary. 

KCRW: Many Americans have accepted that the Russians interfered with the 2016 election to help Donald Trump. In your research, did you discover how important that was in actually swaying the election to Trump?

Alex Gibney: “I think it's going to always be impossible to know exactly how much impact the Russian incursions had. I will say, particularly when we're talking about the troll farms and amping up a sense of hostility, that they would intervene on both sides of an issue sometimes and inflame passions to a great extent. 

And what we saw as a result of that, in some states, was people just not going out to vote. In Detroit, for example, 75,000 people who turned out for Obama in 2012 did not turn out in 2016. And Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by only 10,000 votes. 

So do we know for sure that the Russians were responsible for that? No, but it gives you some sense that the efficacy of kind of general disgust with the campaign did have an impact.”

Camille Francois: “Yeah, I agree with Alex. I think it's important to keep in mind that at this stage, there's no reliable evidence that the Russian campaign had a significant impact on the actual vote in 2016. But that being said, I think it did really succeed in dividing the country. And in two ways at least, both at the time of the interference with campaigns that were designed to inflame people against one another and to put people in the streets and to trigger violence really. 

And also, because of the way the country reacted to the very fact of the interference, the debate that we had around Russian interference itself, since the past four years really, have contributed to continuing to divide the country. And in that sense, it is a success, unfortunately.”

The chaos itself is what makes people confused, so they don't know if Hillary Clinton's emails were important or not. They just keep hearing ‘emails, emails, emails.’ It's chaotic. And they think, ‘I can't participate in this. It's too much.’”

Alex Gibney: “I think that's part of it. And then the other part of it are the people who understand how to manipulate that chaos. And Vladimir Putin would be one of those people and Donald Trump is another. 

Donald Trump really thrives on chaos. One of his great geniuses really is being able to say outrageous things all the time, and not particularly caring if they're truthful or not. The economic model of our media tends to follow that because it gets clicks, both from his supporters and both from his detractors. But what it really does contribute to is a sense of overall confusion. And what you're left with then is just the kind of gut level tribalism, which is really a very, very dangerous thing.”

How primed were Americans to accept all of this disinformation and chaos?

Alex Gibney: “I think we were primed. I think that the Russian attack, and it was in different forms in 2016, was … as successful … because we have become so divided. We have become so credulous when it comes to conspiracy theories on social media. As [Former FBI director James] Comey says in the film, the Russians didn't inject anything that was a foreign agent into the bloodstream of America, they just stirred up what was already here.”

The headquarters for this troll farm — the Internet Research Agency — is in St. Petersburg. What does it look like? And how do they plant stories in American social media?

Camille Francois: “You have a handful of — they're called specialists who are designing posts to target specific groups. They have, for instance, someone who's dedicated to targeting Black activists. They create a post and then they look at the reactions. If the reactions are strong, they continue in this direction. They have other people who are focused on other audiences, and then they report back on which ones have worked and not worked. They do search engine optimization. And so a lot of this is what you would see in any sort of digital marketing shop. 

… They send people on the ground in missions to talk to activists, to infiltrate groups. And they again continue refining and iterating, as the years continue. I think often we think about it as something that happened in 2016. But they have continued refining and iterating these techniques ever since.”

A view of Moscow in “Agents of Chaos.” Photo courtesy of HBO

They started a few years before 2016 in Ukraine. And they were successful in dividing Ukraine against itself, the pro-Russia and the anti-Russia sides?

Alex Gibney: “I think your point is well taken about Ukraine, that the Russians really were able to hone their craft, both in terms of real cyber intrusions (they shut down a power plant and a lot of the Ukrainian grid in 2014) but also social media trickery.”

Vladimir Putin disavowed any knowledge of this or any direct influence over it. Yevgeny Prigozhin was the man behind the IRA. He’s nicknamed ‘Putin’s Chef’ and was literally a caterer. Tell us about him. 

Alex Gibney: “Putin's Chef literally starts off as a hotdog salesman, and he continues to fail up. He did a miserable job catering to schools. Some parents accused him of poisoning their children. But that got him bigger and bigger contracts with Russian officials. And ultimately, he ends up starting the Internet Research Agency. So it's an off-the-books operation. It's not a government enterprise. It's something that's private. So Putin doesn't have to, I mean, you can rightly say he doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin was basically running the troll farm, right? 

Alex Gibney: “Yes.”

What was the larger goal for the Russians? We've heard they wanted to sow the seeds of chaos and make everything crazy in the 2016 election. But was there something else Putin wanted?

Alex Gibney: “I think there's a mix of motives here. One of the agendas was … a Russian domestic agenda. If you can tweak the world's biggest superpower, you look pretty good to your domestic constituents, you are then enabled and elevated. So I think there was a domestic agenda to this.

I do think, though, that there was also an attempt to kind of hack democracy to discredit democracy. That was, I think, part of the original goal long before they even imagined that Donald Trump could ever win the presidency of the United States.”

Exactly how involved was the Trump campaign in this disinformation campaign, in the hacking of the emails and the breaching of the DNC servers? The Mueller Report said there was no collusion, but there are shades of cooperation that maybe don't rise to the full definition of collusion. What did you discover?

Alex Gibney: “I think there's no red phone, where Donald Trump is speaking to Vlad in Moscow, and they're discussing what they're going to do next. It's more like call and response. I mean, let's recall that moment where Trump asked for the missing Hillary emails, and he said it was a joke, sure. But just a few hours later, Russian military intelligence is trying to penetrate Hillary's server. 

I think that Trump really didn't imagine that he was going to win the presidency of the United States, but he was certainly very interested in getting the Moscow Trump Tower deal done. And in order to do that, it really helped to praise Putin quite a bit. There were commercial interests he was satisfying.”

What are these troll farms, Vladimir Putin, Russia doing now to stir up chaos in this election? 

Camille Francois: “Last time we found an operation that was linked to the IRA was just a handful of weeks ago. And there were things that were new, but also things that were quite like classic 2016 IRA. 

They had created a website called Peace Data. And they were pretending that the website was an independent media that was publishing stories around the failure of the U.S. presidential candidates, for instance. They were recruiting freelancers and journalists who had no idea that they were actually writing for this Russian operation. In the last few months, I would say we've seen Russian operations being really interested in this technique of using unwitting participants. 

We have also seen this a few months before that, where they had done this operation using activists in Ghana, who were targeting Black activists in the U.S. on Instagram, unknowingly participating in this new IRA campaign.”

Are they actively on the side of Donald Trump? 

Camille Francois: “They're clearly on the side of chaos. And so whatever is a dividing topic, whatever is a polarizing topic, is something that we see come again in these campaigns.”

The White House in “Agents of Chaos.” Photo courtesy of HBO

How is the average person supposed to know they’re actually looking at Russian disinformation? 

Camille Francois: “It's not the case that 30% of the internet is Russian or something like that. Sometimes you read really sort of amped up figures like that. A lot of people are working to detect these campaigns. We're now a little bit better at it. The platforms are working to detect these campaigns. 

… Individuals and organizations and users who are targeted are themselves getting better at questioning, ‘Where is this information coming from? Why is this activist group that I've never heard about suddenly showing up in my feed? Who are the people behind this event?’ 

So I think it's a combination of people just having generally better reflexes when they question where information is coming from, and platforms and governments really doubling down on this type of campaign. 

If everybody is terrified that Russians are behind what they read on the internet, that's not a good way forward, right? You don't want people to sort of be obsessed with this either. This is still a very, very minority of what's happening on the internet.”

Russia was poised to act if Hillary Clinton won in 2016. What were they going to do?

Alex Gibney: “I think they were going to try to discredit the election results. They assumed like everybody else did that Clinton was going to win. And their ability to hack into election databases was designed, everyone believes, to discredit the results, to foul up enough things so that Donald Trump's claims of the election being rigged …  would be reinforced.”

Trump is doing that now.

Alex Gibney: “Yeah, exactly. That's why I think past is prologue. I think that he's already getting ready to do that just in case. So I think that's why we should all be concerned about how this election is handled. Lest now as president, he then takes advantage of the view by some that the election might be rigged and refuse to leave office. But I suspect that the Russians are undergirding this election-rigged narrative, and will also try to penetrate election systems once again.” 

How will the Russians penetrate the election again? 

Camille Francois: “There's a sort of series of tools at their disposal. And we've seen them use that before. I think as usual, it's important to keep in mind that the target is trust in the system. And so what we've seen them do over the past two years is, for instance, to create campaigns in which they say that they have managed to interfere in the elections, even if it's not true. And so sowing trust, including … trumping up fake interference is something that we might see them do again.”

If the Russians are unable to penetrate and rig our systems, but they say they have and Trump says it's rigged, does it even matter? Isn't it on us whether or not we believe this?

Alex Gibney: “Some extent it is. I mean, I think that's the great weakness of our current system that the Russians exploited. And the erosion of trust is palpable, and we somehow have to figure out a way to get that back.”

— Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin