“Agents of Chaos” – Ignore at the peril of democracy [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Agents of Chaos” is a two-part documentary brought to us by Emmy and Academy Award winning filmmaker Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief;” The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”). It tackles the insidious and widespread transmission of false information to sow discord in the foundations of our democratic government. Both parts were written by Gibney and Michael J. Palmer. Part One was directed by Gibney, Part Two was directed by Gibney and Javier Alberto Botero.
Gibney’s “Agents of Chaos” is a deep dive into the methods, both old school bribery and corruption plus new school technology, used to undermine the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and the cooperative collusion that facilitated it, revealing information far beyond what you may have previously suspected. Using flow charts and clear explanations, “Agents of Chaos” begins by explaining the term “Trolls,” a word many of us have heard with regards to internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter but have a less than complete understanding of what they are and how they work. Cyber conflict researcher Camille François carefully explains the methodology.
The film takes us through the creation of these Trolls showing how fake Facebook identities were created by a group of young people in Russia playing with various methods to disseminate false information. Working together in what was called a “Troll Factory,” as originally conceived, the group created fake profiles and then used them to comment on information posted by others to encourage some and plant false information in others. Through their “comments,” they sought to become influencers, primarily in politics. It was a fairly disorganized, underpaid (if paid at all) group experimenting in the fomenting of dissent.
In 2014, a close confidante of Vladimir Putin’s, Yevgeny Prigozhin, saw the political value in professionalizing the use of Trolls and things started to heat up. Out with the young and in with the professional hackers to ramp up the previously amateur techniques involved in “comments.” Commenting didn’t get followers; the comments might be picked up and spread but they remained out of the realm of absolute influence. Instead, under Prigozhin, the Troll Factory (now officially called the Internet Research Agency or IRA) mobilized to create a web of influence to sow discord, disillusionment, and conspiracy in politics, initially to great effect in the Ukraine. Now the fake profiles would supply their own content, targeting specific groups more susceptible to believing the false conspiracies that fed into the Russians’ need for discord within the targeted political system.
Prigozhin honed the Factory’s skills while creating behind-the-scenes chaos in the Ukraine. At issue was whether the Ukraine would lean toward Europe and join the EU or toward Russia and Putin. At stake were the huge oil and gas reserves in the east, reserves Putin couldn’t afford to lose. Putin needed a smoke screen to prop up Viktor Yanukovych, his puppet president, and create a platform of division between Crimea in eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country. Yanukovych, ousted in 2014, fled to Russia and in the wake of the ensuing pandemonium Russian troops then moved into Crimea to annex it. A referendum was held on whether Crimea should join Russia or remain autonomous (there was no choice on the ballot to remain with the Ukraine), the election sealed the annexation to Russia. This was the Troll Factory’s first victory as, not only did they control the narrative about who wanted annexation, but they also infiltrated the vote, claiming a turnout of 83% when, in reality, it was discovered that only 30% of the population had voted. Ukraine without Crimea was essentially worthless, an impoverished nation without resources or a source of wealth. How they actually voted would remain a mystery. This was the first successful use of Trolls to control a campaign and its aftermath. Now they were ready for bigger fish.
We were the bigger fish. The early pasta approach, wherein you throw a lot of spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, had given way to specifically targeted groups whose tendency not only to believe fringe theories but also to disseminate them was brilliant because the goal wasn’t internet followers, the goal was major media and the semblance of credibility. Fox News was their target and their goal because the minute one of the fringe conspiracy theories was picked up by one of the Fox News commentators, it immediately became “true.” Fox News was an eager if perhaps unwitting co-conspirator, unwitting only because they were uninterested in the original source.
Part One of “Agents of Chaos” lays the foundation for what happened during the lead up to the 2016 election. Part Two introduces many of the major players who had a role in the chaos that was created as both subterfuge and groundwork foundation for the 2016 election as well as the potential for the greater and deeper penetration in the 2020 contests.
Throughout the two part documentary, Gibney introduces us first to the Russian players, with Putin always hovering in the background but with enough distance for plausible deniability (which actually isn’t really plausible and he often doesn’t directly deny). Unearthing, or rather re-revealing, some of the Western “players” only serves to underscore the seriousness of the “allegations.”
As has been revealed in the past, Putin was very much against the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and very much pro-Trump. The former was seen as an enemy of Russia; the latter a friend whose porous network of backers was easily penetrated. It is no surprise that the Troll Factory released no negative information or emails pertaining to Donald Trump. For some, not many I hope, Julius Assange is a hero for free speech. The timing of his release of the emails, sent to him by Russia, was remarkable for how targeted they were to cause the maximum amount of damage to the Democratic candidate. The Assange we see on screen is every bit the complicit conduit for the calculated destruction of Clinton.
Although there had been much press about the shady dealings of Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, Gibney lays out Manafort’s history so that it is easy to take the yellow brick road that he followed – from advising autocrats like Yanukovych to oligarchs to whom he became financially indebted and repaid that debt with inside sensitive political information when he became Trump’s campaign manager. Many spokes in the wheel of Trump’s candidacy and eventual presidency are laid out and explained.
Gibney has gathered a most impressive group of talking heads to lead us through the machinations as well as the missed opportunities by Obama’s administration and various government agencies as well as the potential disasters awaiting us, many of which are purposely being ignored by the GOP leadership as partisan politics.
Our elections and the democracy at the root of them are being severely compromised. It is hard to ignore the past intrusions and future targets when they are being explained by the men and women who have been on the forefront of the investigations into the GRU (Russia’s Military Intelligence) and the IRA. Leading us through the weeds of chaos are, among others, Andrew Weissmann, lead prosecutor for the Mueller Investigation; Andrew McCabe, former FBI Deputy Director; John Brennan, former CIA Director; and most impressively, Celeste Wallander, NSC (National Security Council) Senior Director. Trump business associate Felix Sater and Margarita Simonyan, Editor-in Chief of the Russian State News Agency who is a stand-in for Putin deniability also speak. Sater is particularly interesting because he was a real estate partner of Trump’s as they tried to get a Moscow Trump Tower off the ground at the same time Trump was running for office. As Sater was quick to point out, win or lose the election, Trump was going to gain financially.
“Agents of Chaos” straightforwardly lays out the mistakes of the past and the dangers of the future. Step by step, branch by branch, tentacle by tentacle, what at first looks like a giant tangle of messy wires becomes a frighteningly clear blueprint for disaster.
Miss this series at your peril. “Agents of Chaos” is filmmaking at its best and highest form.
On HBO and streaming on HBO MAX
Part One debuts Wednesday September 23 9:00 PM PST
Part Two debuts Thursday September 24 9:00 PM PST