Although the manufacturing of public cynicism tends to be associated with Russia, it is a common feature and tool of authoritarian nations.
Did you read this fascinating article by Amanda Taub in the January 15 New York Times? In the valuable column called The Intepreter, Taub describes and particularizes the use of “Kompromat”–described by Serge Schmemann, who covered the Soviet Union for years, in a personal, often dryly amusing (at least to me: I didn’t have to live through it) piece called “That Time the K.G.B. Slipped Me Vodka”:
For those of us who worked in the old Soviet Union as reporters or diplomats, all the talk of “kompromat” and “dezinformatsiya” that has emerged with the Trump dossier — unverified — has been a blast from what we thought was a distant past.
In the Soviet mind-set, foreigners were a permanent but inescapable danger to be isolated in guarded compounds, monitored with ubiquitous bugs, followed in the streets, restricted in their travels and manipulated through propaganda. To be on the safe side, the K.G.B. presumably compiled compromising materials (kompro-mat) on foreigners so they could be blackmailed or thrown out if necessary.
Like many another foreign correspondent, I was the target of a few such attempts — or at least there were a few I became aware of. One time at the bar of the hotel in Odessa run by Intourist, the agency that handled foreigners’ travels, a young woman jumped suddenly on my neck as flashbulbs went off. In Samarkand a colleague and I were surreptitiously given vodka at an outdoor teahouse and then arrested for drinking it. Another colleague, a strict teetotaler, was slipped a Mickey Finn meant to make him look totally drunk. In each such case, we promptly filed a formal protest and thought little more of it, accepting it as the price of being Western reporters in a paranoid police state.
Taub brings Schmemann’s descriptions of how Kompromat works into our immediate present in the United States and continues to lay out why and how it is dangerous. She begins:
WASHINGTON — Since the emergence of an unverified dossier with salacious claims about President-elect Donald J. Trump, Americans have debated the ramifications of the arrival of “kompromat” as a feature of American politics.
In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.
And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia — the word kompromat is a portmanteau of the Russian words for “compromising” and “information” — it is a common feature of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian nations around the world.
Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.
Taub gives specifics, citing work done by an American professor of communications in Azerbaijan, and Taub’s own specific experiences in Guatemala:
There, spreading lies and salacious gossip to discredit one’s enemies is referred to as a “campaña negra,” or a black campaign, rather than kompromat. But the result was the same: Public trust had been so eroded that lies were equally capable of destroying the honest and rehabilitating the criminal.
There’s a lot more referring to leaks, public trust and Trump. It’s terrific, if creepy.
And it’s given me an idea. Since I discovered that the NYT links readers’ comments to a number of articles, I’ve become a lay quasi-expert in picking through these comments. Translation: I waste too much time nodding and/or yelling at readers’ comments.
Since the Times allows commenters to identify themselves by pseudonyms and locations such as “planet earth,” I can’t be sure that the pseuds writing are trolls paid to cover major news publications by the Russians–or, indeed, troll wanna-be’s who are, in effect, pitching their wares to the Kremlin (“Hey this is what I can do. Get I get on the payroll? I will accept payment in rubles, for sure.”).
Over the past year, I’ve detected certain suspicious patterns in such comments, patterns that strongly suggest the “comment” is Kremlin (or other autocratic power bases) boilerplate. For one thing, there are phrases and attitudes that are repeated almost word for word, from one comment to another, and not always relevant to the article upon which they purport to comment.
I’ll show you what I mean when I next pull one of ’em out of the NYT comment slush pile.
It’ll be fun for me. I mean “fun,” in the sense of: I’m going crazy spending so much time reading fact-free distortions emerging out of “planet earth” or elsewhere in the solar system. I want to transform this otherwise random activity, this, um, waste of time into purpose.
New category: Komprosplat.
Not at all by the way: despite the flagrantly displayed ignorance and idiocy and bigotry that brought about this election, my fellow countryfolk are so varied, so naturally progressive and so argumentative, I don’t believe most of us (our genuine voting majority) will allow our trust in the major news media as fact-deliverers to be muddied.
That can only happen in another kind of country–one used to autocracy, state-owned media and without a First Amendment.