Agent of Influence 2.0

An agent of influence is a particular type of agent used by an agency to deliver information (or a narrative) they hope will sway public opinion. There are three types of agent of influence:

  1. Controlled Agent — an agent under the direct control of an agency
  2. Trusted Contact — someone who is aware that they are being fed data by an agency; who is also looking to advance the same/similar agenda, but is not directly under the control of the agency
  3. Unwitting Agent — sometimes called a “useful idiot,” these agents are not aware of their role as conduits of data for an agency

The primary role for an agent of influence is to add credibility to the narrative / data that the agency is attempting to get out and help influence the public.

What an Influence Campaign Looks Like

All quotes are from The Intercept (here, and here).

The emails were provided to The Intercept by the source identifying himself as Guccifer 2.0, who was reportedly responsible for prior significant hacks, including one that targeted the Democratic National Committee and resulted in the resignations of its top four officials. On Friday, Obama administration officials claimed that Russia’s “senior-most officials” were responsible for that hack and others, although they provided no evidence for that assertion. [Emphasis added]
  1. The Intercept was given “exclusive” access to emails obtained by the entity known as Guccifer 2.0.
  2. The Intercept was both aware that the emails were from Guccifer 2.0, that Guccifer 2.0 has been attributed to Russian intelligence services, and that there is significant public evidence supporting this attribution (collected here.)
  3. The final line in this paragraph is what one might call a “lie by omission.” While it is true that the USG has not provided any evidence, there is no lack of evidence in the public domain. It is worth mentioning that evidence exists, even if one is not convinced, to pretend otherwise is dishonest to the audience.

The Intercept is Familiar with Influence Operations

As these internal documents demonstrate, a central component of the Clinton campaign strategy is ensuring that journalists they believe are favorable to Clinton are tasked to report the stories the campaign wants circulated.

Providing friendly journalists with data that presents a specific narrative is something which every reporter is familiar with. It is the bread and butter of public relations agencies.

One January 2015 strategy document — designed to plant stories on Clinton’s decision-making process about whether to run for president — singled out reporter Maggie Haberman, then of Politico, now covering the election for the New York Times, as a “friendly journalist”…
That strategy document plotted how Clinton aides could induce Haberman to write a story on the thoroughness and profound introspection involved in Clinton’s decision-making process. The following month, when she was at the Times, Haberman published two stories on Clinton’s vetting process; in this instance, Haberman’s stories were more sophisticated, nuanced, and even somewhat more critical than what the Clinton memo envisioned.

Journalists are aware that they are fed stories and so they have developed strategies of handling such events. For example, Ms. Haberman wrote “more sophisticated, nuanced, and even somewhat more critical” articles.

But they nonetheless accomplished the goal Clinton campaign aides wanted to fulfill

Of course, when the goal is simply to get the material published via a credible platform, strategies such as treating the source material critically are not sufficient, as The Intercept points out.

A separate email chain between Clinton staff (one that was not among those provided by Guccifer 2.0 but appeared on the DCLeaks.com site earlier this week)

Both Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks.com are attributed via public evidence (plus here), as well as official US intelligence statement, to Russian intelligence. There is also evidence linking the two entities, and pointing to Russia, in the public domain.

Why Provide Russian Intelligence a Platform?

Once the journalist has confidence in the authenticity of the material, the only relevant question is whether the public good from publishing outweighs any harm… the journalist[‘s],…only concern should be reporting on newsworthy material

Potential Harm

Some have been arguing that because these hacks were engineered by the Russian government with the goal of electing Trump or at least interfering in U.S. elections, journalists should not aid this malevolent scheme by reporting on the material. Leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence (just unproven U.S. government assertions) that the Russian government is behind these hacks, the motive of a source is utterly irrelevant in the decision-making process about whether to publish. [Emphasis added]

Public Good?

All presidential campaigns have their favorite reporters, try to plant stories they want published, and attempt in multiple ways to curry favor with journalists. These tactics are certainly not unique to the Clinton campaign (liberals were furious in 2008 when journalists went to John McCain’s Arizona ranch for an off-the-record BBQ).

So, there you have it. The tactics discussed in the article are not unique, just standard operating procedure for political campaigns and have been documented for years. This is “newsworthy”?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

[influence operations using] journalists …are typically carried out in the dark, despite how significant they can be. These documents provide a valuable glimpse into that process.

Indeed.

Final Words

[This post] speaks to a problem in journalism when entities try to use journalists as distributors for their message. Journalists like to claim simply publicizing information doesn’t mean advocating any one side (a form of RT != endorsement) but in a subtle way it always does. By disseminating information, journalists play a significant role in promoting it. Even in an age of social media, journalists still hold an influential role of validating a story. (Just as when people complain that mainstream media isn’t covering an issue, when social media has disseminated it to numbers far beyond what MSM reaches.)
Unfortunately, the economy of the news business makes scoops and exclusives strong incentives. Not even in tangible terms of dollars, or clicks. It is a powerful motivator for most journalists to have the most potent information, and to have it first. It drives the entire competition of the biz, and makes it difficult to say no to an exclusive story.
A responsible journalist should think more critically at the situation and realize the role they are playing in validating a story by covering it. Ethics isn’t about defining clear rules of right or wrong, but recognizing the dilemmas and fully appreciating and considering all the implications of ones actions.
There is a book our students are required to read called ‘The Journalist and the Murderer,’ known by its opening paragraph: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible” It refers to ways journalists use sources for stories, but in that same token I think there is this implicit knowledge that journalists have; both in terms of the things they do to get stories, and the role they play in covering stories. Anyone who stops to think what’s going on knows they are being used. And while they might justify it in various ways — giving coverage to the other side, being transparent, whatever — they inevitably play a critical role in giving credence and authority to stories.
— Jeremy Rue, lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.