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Here are Putin’s top three disinformation techniques to watch out for during impeachment trial

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Ambassador Michael McFaul on MSNBC’s “The Beat” (screengrab)

America’s former ambassador to Russia warned on Monday of how Russian disinformation techniques are polluting the American discourse as the U.S. Senate prepares to hold President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

At its heart, the scandal in the Ukraine scandal involves Trump and Rudy Giuliani failing at media literacy, and then allegedly breaking the law to chase a discredited conspiracy theory that was started by Russian military intelligence.

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Former Ambassador Michael McFaul, who is now a professor at Stanford, explained his concerns in a new Washington Post column.

“During her testimony in the House Intelligence Committee impeachment hearings last year, former National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill scolded U.S. representatives for believing and sometimes echoing Russian-inspired disinformation about alleged Ukrainian interference in our 2016 presidential election. She stated bluntly: ‘This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.’ In a matter of days, U.S. senators will be exercising one of their most solemn constitutional duties as they take part in the second phase of the impeachment process. When they do so, they — and the rest of us — should take heed of Hill’s warning,” McFaul explained.

“By now it should be amply clear that Russian-style disinformation tactics, whether employed by Russians or Americans, represent a major threat to American democracy,” he added.

McFaul broke down the top three disinformation techniques employed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and proxies.

“The first is to deny facts. For instance, Putin initially denied that Russian soldiers had seized control of Crimea in February 2014, denies Russian involvement in the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014, and denies any Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” McFaul warned.

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“A second tactic is to deflect attention from the facts, also known as ‘whataboutism.’ When criticized about Crimean annexing Crimea, Putin’s media shoot back, what about Kosovo? Or New Mexico? When criticized about civilian casualties from Russian military intervention in Syria, Kremlin defenders retort, what about Iraq, Vietnam or Hiroshima? When confronted with evidence of Russian meddling in U.S. elections, the Russian standard refrain is, you do it all the time,” he explained.

“A third practice is the dissemination of lies. Russian state media once asserted that President Barack Obama and former Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi embraced the same ideology. I may be more sensitive than most about this tactic, because when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Russia, Kremlin media outlets accused me of fomenting revolution against Putin’s regime; perhaps most disgustingly of all, a video was circulated suggesting I was a pedophile. When Putin met with President Trump in July 2018 in Helsinki, the Russian president again lied about me, claiming I had broken Russian law while working in the White House,” he noted.

The professor explained how these three techniques come together.

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“A cumulative effect of all these tactics is nihilistic debasement of the very concept of truth. Putin is not trying to win the argument; instead, his propaganda machine aims to convince that there is no truth, no right and wrong, or no data or evidence, only relativism, point of view and biased opinion,” McFaul said. “We must not let these Kremlin-style tactics distort our public deliberations during the Senate trial.”

McFaul gave three suggestions.

“First, we cannot allow denials to confuse our understanding of the facts of Trump’s withholding of military assistance to Ukraine. Trump denies he did anything wrong. We have heard extensive testimony from officials working in the Trump administration that clearly established the facts,” he noted.

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“Second, senators and the media must avoid the temptations of whataboutism,” he urged.

“Third, we must reject categorically falsehoods. The American cybersecurity company CrowdStrike did not cover up Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 presidential election; this is an entirely invented story. Former vice president Joe Biden was not freelancing on behalf of his son when implementing U.S. government policy — supported by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, Republican senators, and the Ukrainian anti-corruption nongovernmental-organization community — to seek the ouster of corrupt Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin,” he reminded.

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