Propaganda and disinformation: How Russia's new war campaign works

The Democrats are focusing on President Trump's connections to Russia. The Republicans are focusing on intelligence leaks.

But what should Americans really be paying attention to as we investigate Russia's influence on our 2016 presidential elections?

MPR News host Kerri Miller talks to Russia expert and Fianna Strategies foreign policy adviser Molly McKew about how Russia is continuing to wage its information wars in the United States and Europe.

Here are 7 things to pay attention to, and McKews' take:

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1. Is the House Intelligence Committee doing a good job investigating Russia's influence? McKew argues the House Intelligence Committee has been to partisan in its investigation.

"You had this amazing hearing with former CIA director [John] Brennan two weeks ago now ... where the questions to him from both parties were so political and so focused on narrow agendas that his response to all of them was essentially, 'Hey people, there's been an attack on our country. Maybe we should pay attention to that."

2. What do the FBI and CIA think of what's happening? "For the intelligence community and for others who follow Russian interference and Russian influence operations on a day-to-day basis, it is so clear the patterns of behavior and activity that have been going forward and the sort of partisan response to this, the overall kind of reaction of 'Eh. So the Russians interfered in the election — big deal,' is really astounding to the people who are working to secure our country on a day-to-day basis."

3. Where are all the leaks coming from? "There are three categories of leaks: One is that it's frustration. It's people within the intelligence community who believe that the right things are not being looked at by those in the power to do anything about them ... Some of it is an effort to put information into the public sphere because there are individuals working on these portfolios who are worried that no one will ever know, or the evidence will be disappeared. The third category of leaks is very much disinformation, for lack of a better way to say it. And it's sort of hard to know which are well-intentioned people who believe information needs to be made public for reasons of security...and then people who are just trying to muddle the understanding of what's going on."

4. How did Russia influence the election? McKew says it wasn't so much that there was actual hacking of polling places, it was more, what she called, hacking people. "For them [the Russians], this is like the ultimate hack, essentially, if you can hack people, which is really, in base terms, what they are trying to figure out how to do with a culmination of a century of psychological operations and intelligence operations and information operations kind of coming together with this perfect platform of Facebook and Twitter to mobilize them all and get them in front of people very quickly from sources that are totally suspect — that most people don't even bother to question. You can really shape the information environment around individuals in ways that you never could before."

5. What about fake news? How is Russia using it? "There's been this sort of strange merger of headlines and content among — if you look at RT and Sputnik as the twin pillars of the Russian disinformation space — a merger of content from those into far-right outlets in the United States — Breitbart and Infowars and some of the newer ones that I don't even really understand — and then a bleed from that into Fox News, which is sort of the mainstream conservative news in the United States. This is how information spreads. And this is the goal of the billions of dollars that the Russians have spent in media and news — to get what is obvious disinformation and propaganda from propaganda platforms into other media with very little question ... this is something we should all be concerned about."

6. So is it just far-right media outlets that echo Kremlin headlines? "The way that Russian information operations and influence operations work is, again, the chaos. It's not just the right. The Russians have cultivated relationships on the left for a long time. A good example of this is — and there's been well-documented cases of this across Europe and the United States — the Russians were funding a huge number of green causes ... This is another instance where the message from the Kremlin — and that's what RT and Sputnik are — the message from the Kremlin. The message from the Kremlin is, America is ceding its leadership in the world. America doesn't want to play by international law or international rules. America has no moral right to lead or to have authority."

7. What can Americans do to fight disinformation? "The most important thing is to understand ... what the pillars of Kremlin policy and global ambitions are. And then understanding that information is the primary front in what they view as a global war. It is the first step to anything else: softening opinion and changing opinion, realigning opinion. And across the West, creating dissent, questioning government ... it's something we really need to pay attention to. It's not just about opinion. It's about trying to de-stabilize everything we value as societies."