As Abraham Lincoln once famously said, don’t believe everything you read on the internet. You have to be savvy in the Information Age, and the garish katzenjammer of fake news, clickbait and “alternative facts” makes a battle out of separating the wheat from the chaff. I’m skeptical about a lot of things on the world wide web, and the idea of Russian bot accounts built in so-called troll farms sounded like just another conspiracy theory to me. That was until I saw Alex Gibney’s two-part docuseries Agents of Chaos, a brilliantly lucid deepdive into the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election.
A long time in the making
The prolific filmmaker has made great films about former Russian oligarchs (Citizen K), corrupt lobbyists (Casino Jack), and Wikileaks (We Steal Secrets). It was only a matter of time before his political interests would cross-pollinate and he would make such a documentary as Agents of Chaos. His clout as an esteemed filmmaker pulls in a host of fascinating contributors. They range from Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the infamous state-sponsored Russian TV network RT, to ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, to John Podesta, former White House Chief of Staff.
The two episodes are distinct yet smoothly interwoven to paint the reality of collusion. The first episode is about the inception of the tactics used to establish Trump in the White House, including how the seed of Russian interference was planted in Ukraine, which infamously led to riots in 2014. We see how, during the crisis between the nations, there were fake videos created of fascist militant groups operating in Ukraine (naturally, conspiracy-site InfoWars fell for these dubious recordings). None of it feels too academic or hard to grasp and the profile of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Putin’s chef and head of a troll factory, is particularly eye-opening.
Camille Francois, a cybersecurity researcher, provides fascinating insight, speaking on the results of her study of a Russian troll farm called Internet Research Agency (a very intentional acronym). The first-hand footage of nerdy guys working overtime to pump out legions of fake profiles in an office in St. Petersburg is supplied by an investigative journalist who visited and recorded what otherwise looks like a typical corporate environment. A couple of professional trolls sit down with Gibney and explain how they were lured into what seemed like regular civil service jobs, with the true intentions masked until they were given specific directions.
Manipulating the masses
Francois affirms something we all may have suspected: it’s not just the racist, sexist, alt-right bots that exist, but there are also accounts made to exploit issues mattering to the left. A given example is a fake page about BLM, which would promote unsourced clickbait and fake news to essentially sow division. Regardless of what happens with these viral sensations, at the very least, just a moral panic is a victory at the troll farm. It’s terrifying just how easy it is for phony Facebook pages to manipulate the masses and create hate. This is also alluded to in the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, which is a great precursor to this film. Together, these films provide startling revelations about social media as a tool of global manipulation.
Episode 2 is much more focused on the bureaucratic, examining the narrative entailing the key persons of interest in the FBI probe, including convicted lobbyist Paul Manafort, and is somewhat less absorbing because of the high exposure during the new cycle. As a result of being reported on so much, It’s a little bit less interesting than the revelations of the first episode, but still engaging thanks to the filmmaker’s accessible style and certainly provides clarity. Under Gibney’s guidance, it makes you feel like you’re learning in the class of your favourite college professor, who knows best how to hold your attention, ably elucidate on key points, and offer plenty of food for thought.
Conclusion: Agents of Chaos
Agents of Chaos is an incredibly rich examination of the most pressing concern around the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election. One hopes that Gibney’s cinematic thesis helps to prevent democracy from being further undermined in 2020. Drawing on an abundance of primary source material and candid testimonies from a multitude of interviewees – one choice moment is a gleeful Simonyan saying “Of course Russians prefer Trump because Trump said he prefers Russians!” – Agents of Chaos disentangles the knotty web of US-Russia relations with a perspicuous structure.
Will you be tuning into watch Agents of Chaos? Let us know in the comments below.
Agents of Chaos will debut on HBO on the 23rd and 24th September 2020 and will be available to stream on HBO Max.
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