Reading a new report on Russian online interference in the 2016 Presidential election is a cognitively disturbing experience. The report, prepared by the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, was the more detailed of two commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee and released on Monday—it is illustrated with screenshots of memes apparently used as part of the Russian campaign of disinformation. The text of the report describes a sophisticated, wide-ranging, sustained, strategic operation by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, one that played out on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and elsewhere: “The Internet Research Agency exploited divisions in our society by leveraging vulnerabilities in our information ecosystem. They exploited social unrest and human cognitive biases.” But the illustrations accompanying the New Knowledge report seem transposed from a wholly different narrative.
Consider, for example, a meme featuring two photographs: on top, there is a smiling Donald Trump opposite a smiling Mike Pence; on the bottom, Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine, he with a Satanic five-pointed star in a circle on his forehead and she with buffalo horns growing out of hers. Under Trump and Pence, it reads, “Like for Jesus Team.” The tagline for Clinton and Kaine is “Ignore for Satan Team.” (The New Knowledge report explains that these memes “reinforced in-group camaraderie.”)
Or consider a picture of a distressed young man being comforted by someone who might be Jesus, accompanied by two captions: “ ‘Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.’—Jesus.” and “You can’t hold hands with God when you are masturbating.” (New Knowledge: “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability—usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed—is a timeless espionage practice.”)
Or consider an entire collection of memes agitating for “Texit,” the secession of Texas from the United States. (“Tactic: Sow Literal Division” is the chapter heading of this section.)
Or consider the memes that promote historical conspiracy theories. “Mozart was Black,” one reads. Another holds that the original Statue of Liberty was modelled after a black woman, but the U.S. rejected this gift and France was forced to send the current, white-appearing Lady Liberty. (“The Black-targeted groups were presented with distinct historical conspiracies—ones intended to reinforce cultural identity as well as create discord.”)