It Began Long Before 2016

As I have explained in my previous post “How Far Did Russian Meddling Go?” , my suspicion is that the Kremlin did not start to interfere in US elections only last year or the year before. That’s the underlying assumption that a lot of reporting took for granted, especially earlier this year, and still does.

With more revelations about the long-term cultivation of Donald Trump, the timeline has moved somewhat back. It might have begun in 2013. But even earlier, like during the election in 2012 or even that in 2008, seems to be still out of the question. That is strange because Trump made an attempt to enter the race for the Republican nomination also before the 2012 elections. Yet the consensus view appears to be that Putin hated Hillary Clinton for some reason and wanted to undermine her specifically. And he found Donald Trump a convenient stooge and supported him. But that was about it.

One of my reasons to doubt this assumption is that it would be “out of character.” Putin has tried to influence elections in many countries and for many years. It would be highly unusual if he had left the most important country out. Another is that outlets like RT or Sputnik have not only peddled general propaganda for a long time, but have also tried to boost specific politicians and political tendencies. I have written something up in my post: “Libertarians as Useful Idiots.”

The bottom line is that the Kremlin has been committed to influencing the political climate in the US for years. And that has also an overlap with the elections. Ron Paul, who made a bid for the Republican nomination in both 2008 and 2012, seems to have been of particular interest. He was certainly a long-shot for the nomination, but also valuable as a spoiler. Eventually, he would not endorse the Republican nominee and probably took his supporters with him. With a potentially close race and the threat of McCain or Romney as president, both certainly more hawkish than the alternative, already small shifts could be decisive. Ron Paul’s supporters would probably not move over to Obama, but just stay home for the election.

Here is more why I think that what happened in 2015 and 2016 is not all there was to it. I will write more about this, but let me now focus on one point. It was perhaps the first time, I realized there was Russian meddling in US politics. And it was in about 2011 or 2012.

At the time, I was working in the financial sector here in Europe. We had just come out of the financial crisis, which was a pretty stressful experience. In 2011, the next blow was the Euro crisis. Nervousness was high because it seemed not unlikely that the Euro might break apart. I can recall dramatic shifts in consensus opinion that went from “it won’t happen” to “it might happen” to “it will surely happen,” and then back again.

Someone sent me a link to an article on Zero Hedge in 2011 or I found it somewhere. I can’t recall. Zero Hedge is a blog that then covered mostly financial topics. By now, the website seems to have developed into a more general news site. I found the post interesting, and the author seemed to be knowledgeable. It also played well into the anxiety at the time. Everything that Zero Hedge had to say about the Euro crisis was ominous. But there were also arguments to back it up, so it was not that easy to dismiss it. If you needed confirmation for a negative view, there was plenty of it. I guess that was also what kept me reading further articles for some time.

There were, though, several things that baffled me. One was that the website was pushing Ron Paul no end. I was aware that there is a certain libertarian bias in the financial sector in the US. It was mostly Paul’s drivel how central banks are the incarnation of evil. I was already skeptical of him and found the underlying “Austrian” arguments absurd. Zero Hedge one-upped the whole thing and regularly called Ben Bernanke the “chairsatan.” It took me quite some time to understand the bad pun that was intended with “chairman.” Apart from Ben Bernanke, there were some other actors that got regular scorn, before all Goldman Sachs. There was a certain regularity to this, and I sensed an underlying anti-Semitism because most of the thrust was against people who were Jewish.

The articles on financial topics were interspersed between other posts on general topics. The slant was pretty obvious: Anything about he US or the EU was bad. Putin, by contrast, was a clever guy and Russia a power to be reckoned with. I was much more naive than I am now, but not that naive. I underestimated the danger posed by Putin’s regime. However, I had no illusions about its evilness either.

My conclusion was that Zero Hedge was what pro-Kremlin propaganda should look like. I had not been aware of it before. But I was moderately certain that that was it. What supported my hunch was that I noticed a similar slant also with a libertarian magazine here in Germany around the time: Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Ron Paul, Putin good, US bad, EU bad, the Euro is a disaster. There was also a curious overlap there with a spectrum that would now be called the “alt-right.” And Zero Hedge had that, too, and that seems to have become even more pronounced. To wit, this was all in 2011 and 2012. I have to admit that I did not figure the larger picture out, but this year a lot of pieces have fallen into place for me.

What baffled me perhaps most about Zero Hedge was the breakneck pace of its posts. I would say a dozen per day, long and with some work behind them. That seemed strange because they all appeared under one handle: “Tyler Durden.” Someone had to explain it to me because I didn’t know it: It is the name of a character from the movie “Fight Club” played by Brad Pitt, and that was also whom you could see as the avatar.

So, at one point I checked out the Wikipedia page, which had less information on the background of the website than it has now. Zero Hedge started in 2009, the same year “Russia Today” rebranded as “RT” and ramped up its efforts. The backdrop here was the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. While the Kremlin could win on the ground, it suffered a humiliating defeat with its PR. Putin’s conclusion seems to have been that he needed to counter what he views as the dominance of hostile international media. I have no idea whether that got also Zero Hedge going, it may be a coincidence. But then stoking financial crises in other countries would certainly be welcome.

The explanation for the many posts was simple: It is a team. The founder is apparently Daniel Ivandjiiski, a former hedge-fund analyst from Bulgaria, who had been barred from the industry for insider trading in 2008. There might be a handful of people behind the site, or it might be a few dozen. Reports are contradictory. The domain is registered in Bulgaria.

It was certainly not improbable that I came across Zero Hedge. At the time, it was one of the top websites for financial commentary that could compete with major players. As per the Wikipedia page, it still has quite a respectable Alexa rank at #1671 worldwide. That means a very broad reach. They were also successful pushing various topics. When I read up on Wikipedia at the time, there was far less information there. Now, the suspicion is explicit that this might be a Russian agitprop outlet. I had to connect the dots in 2011/2012. But it was not all that hard. The hints were all over the place.

Still some people do not seem to get it even now. If you do a search for “zerohedge” on Marginal Revolution, you get about thirty posts where Tyler Cowen has linked to Zero Hedge until as late as November 19, 2017. The first link is from February 16, 2009. That is practically right after the inception of the website. Apart from just reading the Wikipedia page, all you have to do to clue you in is to look at Hamilton68, which monitors the activity of Russian bots and trolls. You will frequently find Zero Hedge as one of the top providers for their content. At the moment it is not among them. But I assure you it will not take long before they are back again.

Still on February 22, 2014, Tyler Cowen refers his readers to Zero Hedge when it comes to a potential banking crisis in Ukraine. That’s two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. But you wouldn’t know it from his blog post. Leading “thinker” of the alt-right Steve Sailer warns Cowen in the comments, though, to be careful with believing Anne Applebaum who is married to the former Polish foreign minister. Another commenter going by the handle “Reality Check” seconds: “When in doubt be sure to remember Who is neocon and Whom is goyish.” Who needs Russian trolls if you have such commenters?

My final point is why I bring this up. It began with a thread from Seth Abramson on Twitter who unravels the backstory of the website “True Pundit,” also a darling of Russian bots and trolls. Here is Part 1 and here is Part 2, highly recommended, perhaps the sleeper story that drives people at Fox News at the moment crazy.

What struck me was how similar the setup of True Pundit is with Zero Hedge:

  • Ostensibly a single poster writing at an incredible pace. But actually an obscure team behind the website.
  • A well-known pseudonym, here it is “Thomas Paine.”
  • A mix of original material and general posts with a pro-Kremlin slant.
  • Strategic disinformation mixed in.
  • Tight integration with Russian bots and trolls which helps it find a huge audience.

Maybe this is a coincidence, but you could also imagine a template for such operations that was tested out with Zero Hedge.

Whatever it is: I cannot believe that Russian meddling only started in 2015 or 2016. I will write about other things that I have noticed over the years and that make now much more sense now than they did at the time. So stay tuned …

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Correction: In the original version I made a claim about a comment that was deleted on Marginal Revolution. I checked back, it seems to have been restored. But if I remember correctly it was gone for some time. Since I am not totally sure how it went, I retract the claim.