Donald Trump is no friend of the truth—he's got no mind for details, lies liberally whenever it suits him, is uniquely vulnerable to conspiracy theories and perhaps has no grasp on reality at all.
But Trump's penchant for telling bold-faced lies has become extra dangerous in the hands of a diffuse network of Russian operatives and bots. As former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clint Watts explained to NPR in April, the tag-team effect of Russian media playing off Trump and vice versa is like a revolving door of misinformation.
"It's a circular system. Sometimes the propaganda outlets themselves will put out false or manipulated stories. Other times, the president will go with a conspiracy." [...]
"Every time a conspiracy is floated from the administration, it provides every outlet around the world, in fact, an opportunity to amplify that conspiracy and to add more manipulated truths or falsehoods onto it."
But much of the Russian propaganda Trump spreads starts with the state-sponsored Russian media outlets RT and Sputnik international. Mother Jones reports on several examples of how Trump and his aides have helped spread Russian propaganda, here’s two:
The case of the phony Benghazi email: On October 10, Wikileaks released a batch of emails hacked from campaign chairman John Podesta’s email account. About 5 pm ET that day, Sputnik News published a story about leaked Clinton campaign emails with the headline “Hillary confidante: Benghazi was ‘preventable’; State Department negligent.” Roughly an hour later, Trump told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania that Clinton ally Sidney Blumenthal had called the Benghazi attack “almost certainly preventable.” “This just came out a little while ago,” Trump said. Those words weren’t actually Blumenthal’s and Sputnik later deleted the story – but by then the headline had spread far and wide.
False claims of pervasive voter fraud: RT has been attempting to delegitimize the American electoral process since 2012 by calling the U.S. voting system fraudulent, according to the declassified version of the report the Director of National Intelligence released this past January. In his Senate testimony, Watts called this the “number one theme" pushed by Russian outlets. In October 2016, a Kremlin-controlled think tank circulated a strategy document that said Russia should end its pro-Trump propaganda “and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency,” according to a Reuters investigation.
That same month, Trump pushed hard on the theme that the election was rigged; on Oct. 17 Trump tweeted “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day.” The sources his campaign pointed to were all debunked by Politifact, which noted that Trump had also tweeted in 2012 about dead voters delivering Obama’s win.
We now have a pr*sident who has no grounding in reality regularly pushing out information that has no grounding in reality amplified by bots that have no grounding in reality. And while it’s sometimes nearly impossible to tell where the trail of lies actually began, one thing is for certain, there’ll be no end to the misinformation any time soon.