Business Insider picked up on the social media fervor and published a story mentioning both Yes California and Pishevar. Soon, Pishevar was linked to Yes California, bolstering the movement’s credibility. And as people, including journalists, searched for terms like “California sovereignty” or “Cal Exit”, they found the
Russian coverage of Louis Marinelli’s fringe movement.
“This is what Russia is great at,” says Robert English, an expert on Russia and associate professor of international relations, Slavic languages and environmental studies at USC. “Their media apparatus is so good at spreading disinformation. It makes the line between nutsos and normal people hard to draw.”
The Evolution of a Propaganda War
English, who also serves as deputy director of USC's School of International Relations, worked as a foreign affairs analyst in the Reagan administration Department of Defense. English says during his time there, he would often see outrageous and patently false stories produced by Soviet propaganda outlets.
Some of them would make their way into Western media outlets.
“Take the story that AIDS was created in a lab in Fort Detrick,” English says. “Not a true story. Horribly offensive. Cited people who didn’t exist. The [Soviets] planted that story with friendly Indian newspapers. Soon it was in Latin America, and eventually the AP would pick it up, and then U.S. officials are being asked about it on the record.”
English says Russia has greatly improved its disinformation techniques.
“But today it’s more nefarious because it looks better,” English says. “It doesn’t look like it’s on the fringe.”
English says the goal of Russian propaganda is not to create an instant calamity that leads to revolution. Rather, it’s designed to exploit existing tensions in Western and U.S. society. For example, the AIDS-Fort Detrick story was planted to amplify existing distrust between India, Latin America and the U.S.
English says sowing domestic political divisions in the U.S. appears to be the motivating factor in supporting Yes California.
Marinelli’s effort is endorsed by the Kremlin, which hosted Yes California as part of an anti-globalization conference in Moscow in September. The conference was paid for by the Russian government, and the pictures of Marinelli flanked by other “freedom fighters” from Texas ("Texit," anyone?), Catalonia, Ireland and Puerto Rico provided Yes California a veneer of legitimacy.
It’s a similar approach Russia took when Nigel Farage -- the leader of the anti-EU party UKIP -- was still considered a fringe character.
RT even offered Farage his own show on the network.
These efforts by Putin’s Kremlin to prop up fringe causes have been a concern of U.S. officials for several years. In a speech last year at the Brookings Institution, Vice President Joe Biden warned of Russian attempts to influence Western elections in 2015.
“The Kremlin is working hard to buy off and co-opt European political forces, funding both right-wing and left-wing anti-systemic forces,” Biden said. “President Putin sees such political force as useful tools, to be manipulated, to create cracks in the European body politic, which he can then exploit.”
Biden added: “These actions are abetted by a hyperaggressive Russian propaganda machine that actively spreads disinformation, and does it very well."
USC's English says it’s important to remember that the U.S., too, is waging a campaign -- against Putin.
“In 2011, you had President Obama’s administration breach the norm and suggest Putin’s party committed election fraud,” English says. “There couldn’t be more direct interference than having the U.S. administration saying, ‘We don’t want Putin.’ ”
English also notes that the U.S. is believed to be behind recent Ukrainian hacks of sensitive Russian government emails. Meantime, the CIA has concluded that Russia was behind the effort to hack and release Democratic campaign emails in an effort to get Trump elected.
Russia has also been tied to fake news stories that were damaging to Clinton’s candidacy.
“We’re in this place where news consumers honestly have no idea what they’re consuming,” says Kelly McBride, vice president of the Poynter Institute. “Some of the fake news is really bad actors trying to negatively influence the American democratic process in order to change the balance of world events. You know, somebody sitting on the other end, clicking their fingers together, going
‘Mwha-hah-hah-hah.’ Like, it’s really that bad.”
Russian Influence Seen in Secession Debates Across U.S.
Russia supports other secessionist efforts in the U.S., including the Free Vermont movement, and the “Texit” movement in Texas.
In an interview, Texas Nationalist Movement President Daniel Miller says his group got a “small grant” from the Russian government. However, Miller declined to disclose how much money the Kremlin gave his group.
He does say the cash helped offset costs of attending a Moscow conference of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a Kremlin-backed group that supports Western separatist movements.
Miller says he welcomes Russia’s -- and any other countries' -- support in his quest for local “self-determination.”
He also dismisses concerns that Russia is working with a movement that could weaken the United States if its aims are achieved.
“Our viewpoints are aligned, in that both Russia and us agree that local self-determination is the best form of government,” Miller says. “But ultimately, Russia is not our concern.”
While initially dismissed as a fringe group, the Texit movement has come close to inserting secessionist language into the platform of the Texas Republican Party. Miller expects his movement will be successful at the party's next state convention.
“We also plan on having legislation filed [at the statehouse],” Miller says. “We’ve been working with a couple prominent Republicans and I expect to see this issue to be talked about in Austin.”
Miller adds that his movement existed long before Vladimir Putin came back to power in 2011.
“This isn’t a Manchurian candidate situation,” says USC’s Robert English. “There has to be divisions that exist for Putin to exploit.”
Louis Marinelli acknowledges that Putin is helping secession movements –- including his own Yes California campaign –- as part of a broader strategy to curb U.S. influence.
“I kinda don’t blame them,” Marinelli says. “Because it’s what the United States has been doing to them, and to every country around the world.”
But while the Texit and other secessionist movements may have existed before the Kremlin took the strategy of influencing Western elections, Yes California did not.
Marinelli denies he has received direct support of any kind from the Russian government, including financial grants similar to those given to the Texit movement.
Marinelli says he’s happy to talk to anyone about California secession –- although while he’s in Russia, it will have to be by email or over the phone.