The Russian Internet
The story of the Russian Internet is a story that reaches as far back as early dissident papers and the birth of telecoms in the region. It's an interwoven story of the control of information from paper to sound waves to Internet packets aimed at philosophy, conspiracy, and journalism. Although most Americans can certainly make assumptions about the current state of Russian politics and Internet control, the reality is more complex and nuanced, shaped by centuries of culture. It's not as simple as "Russia hacked the U.S. election," which is a highly debatable, politicized argument in current U.S. politics. It's not as simple as Russian hackers attacking U.S. pipeline infrastructure. To understand where the Internet fits in with Russian society and culture, it's important to under the full scope of that history.
This article draws heavily on The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia's Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan—a fascinating a thorough account of telecommunications, the Internet, and journalism in Russian. In many ways this article is a review of that book, but with added narrative.
The story of Russian communications and telecoms dates well back into World War I where defeats in the Great War led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II (facing a revolution) in favor of a different form of government. No more than 8 months after this abdication, the October Revolution saw the downfall of this provincial government in favor of government rule by the Bolsheviks (led by Vladimir Lenin). This revolution precipitated a Russian Civil War between the Bolsheviks and the anti-communist coalition. During this period of Bolshevik rule, official networks were created to organize and mobilize the masses—not necessarily to inform people—and it is this view of "communication as a tool" rather than one to disseminate information that runs deep in Russian governance and culture even today.
After Lenin's death in 1924, Joseph Stalin succeeded him in both policy and governmental power. Stalin eliminated factionalist opposition within the relatively new United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), and his approach to party and civilian control revolved mostly around controlling information through both literature and radio. Again, we see the tools of media and education being used for propaganda. However, despite central control of communications and relentless propaganda, other opinions, philosophies, and criticisms continued to circulate within the Soviet Union—such as with Jewish dissidents.
In the Soviet Union, there were two groups vying for dominance and control of information: The Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (commonly referred to as the KGB) and the Ministry of Communications. The KGB was founded in 1954 to deal with internal security and intelligence gathering. The Ministry of Communications was founded in 1946, but was proceeded by groups dating back to 1923. The Ministry of Communications was responsible for mail, public radio, and telecommunications. The KGB and the Ministry of Communications were occasionally at odds over the administration and use of early telecom equipment, creating stressors within the government.
Although communication was under tight control within the Soviet Union, geopolitics forced greater integration with a more global communication network, causing the Soviet telecoms to increase cooperation. The expansion of Soviet telecoms to the outside world (a slight loosening of restrictions) was spawn by the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Russian telecom professionals were specifically instructed to keep the phone lines open. With this expansion of telecoms also came an expectation and expansion of surveillance, but once that box of external communication was opened, it stayed open, increasing the information flow to and from the Soviet Union, and creating a driving need for surveillance by the Soviet government.
Later in the decades, as Russian institutions began experimenting with the Internet, it was at first seen as an experimental addition to telecoms and wasn't taken as seriously as standard telephone communication. As a result, despite controlling the information flow through normal telecommunications channels, those involved in the August Coup neglection the communication aspects of the Internet, which allowed information to leak out to the greater international community.
[In August of] 1991 […] a group of eight highly-placed Soviet officials declared themselves a State Committee for the State of Emergency and attempted to seize the reins of political power.
The coup […] was timed to prevent the signing of the new Union Treaty which would have fundamentally recast the relationship between the center and the republics in favor of the latter, and was scheduled for August 20. On August 18, a group of five military and state officials arrived at Gorbachev's presidential holiday home at Foros on the Crimean coast to attempt to persuade him to endorse a declaration of a state of emergency. Gorbachev's angry refusal to do so was the first indication that the coup plotters had miscalculated. The leaders of the coup, the eight members of the State Committee that issued the declaration were Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev's deputy head of the Security Council and the most important representative of the military-industrial complex in the leadership, Vladimir Kriuchkov (head of the KGB), Dmitrii Iazov (Minister of Defense), Valentin Pavlov (Prime Minister), Boris Pugo (Minister of Interior), Gennadii Ianaev (Vice President), Vasilii Starodubtsev (head of the Peasants' Union, a political pressure group opposed to the dismantling of collective farms), and Aleksandr Tiziakov, a leading representative of state industry. They thus included several people whom Gorbachev had appointed and on whom he had relied for advice and counsel especially during his "turn to the right" in the winter of 1990-91.
While Gorbachev was held virtual prisoner, the State Committee ordered tanks and other military vehicles into the streets of the capital and announced on television that they had to take action because Gorbachev was ill and incapacitated. Some of the republics' leaders went along with the coup; others adopted a wait-and-see approach. A few declared the coup unconstitutional. Among them was [Boris] Yeltsin who made his way to the White House, the Russian parliament building, and, with CNN's cameras rolling, mounted a disabled tank to rally supporters of democracy. The soldiers and elite KGB units ordered into the streets by the State Committee refused to fire on or disperse the demonstrators. By August 21 the leaders of the coup had given up. An exhausted Gorbachev returned to Moscow to find it totally transformed. When he visited the Russian parliament, Yeltsin's stronghold, he was humiliated by Yeltsin and taunted by the deputies. Reluctantly, he agreed to Yeltsin's dissolution of the Communist Party which was held responsible for the coup and resigned as the party’s General Secretary. Yeltsin thereupon proceeded to abolish or take over the institutions of the now moribund Soviet Union.1
With the fall of the USSR and the increased focus on business in the new Russian Federation, the challenge became bridging the gap between communism and capitalism in a culture used to government control. This led to increased interest (by the new government) in capturing the same communication events that they did during the telecom years.
For example, when phone companies or Internet service providers (ISPs) in Western countries get an order to begin intercepting communications, they are provided with a specific target to intercept. The government is then provided access for that specific target. In Russian, however, phone companies and service providers have no idea who is being tapped.
The Russian security agencies simply do not trust the operators.2
One way in which this was accomplished was via special "black boxes." These black box were installed at the provider and they represented just one part of the Russian surveillance system.
With the Internet increasing communication and information, it didn't just become a tool for the populace to combat misinformation and organize dissension, but primarily it became an early tool of control to enhance the position of the party in power. Russian officials attempted to weaponize this new communication tool for their own propaganda. For example, early in the days of the Internet it was against the law to publish exit polls on Election Day in Russia, but this restriction only applied to what as considered traditional media. This meant that the law did not cover the Internet. Gleb Pavlovsky (political scientist and former dissendent during the USSR era) suggested a way to exploit this hole, and on December 16th 1999, just before the parliamentary elections, he created the elections99.com web site. Then on election day, he published exit polls in real-time. Pavlovsky's work was widely cited in the traditional media, and the published data swayed voter sentiment in favor of Vladimir Putin's Unity Party. This resulted in the Unity Party gaining 23.3 percent of the vote, compared to 13.3 percent for Yuri Luzhkov’s party. This wasn't just a political victory for the party, but was a political victory for a party that didn't exist prior.
Under Putin's initial rule, the geopolitics of the time continued to clash with the evolution of Internet communication with the government struggling to catch up and stay in control of the communication flow. The new Russian "openness" and expansions in communication and information dissemination allowed for the traditional media to grow in modern Russia, but it didn't take long before a "war" broke out between the general media and the Russian government causing consolidations, arrests, and complete shutdowns. None of these confrontations was more dramatic than the decline of the once prominent Media-Most:
Four days later, on May 11, armed officers of the security services raided the offices of Media-Most on Palashevsky Lane in Moscow. A month later, on June 13, [Vladimir] Gusinsky was detained and imprisoned in the Butyrka jail in the center of the city, placed in a tiny cell with six other inmates in the most notorious of Russian prisons. On the morning of his first day in jail, while meeting with his lawyer, Gusinsky wrote on a copy of his arrest warrant, “It is a political intrigue, organized by high-placed officials for whom freedom of speech poses a danger and an obstacle to their plans.”1 Soon he received a message from Mikhail Lesin, the Russian government’s press minister. Lesin wanted Gusinsky to sell Media-Most in return for his freedom. After three days in jail, Gusinsky agreed. He was released on June 16, and from the prison he went directly to the Media-Most offices and secretly recorded a video statement saying that he only agreed to sell the company under duress.2
Gusinsky and Media-Most were the only large media company to oppose the reelection Vladimir Putin.
Strangely enough, the raid on Media-Most and Gusinky's assets caused a public outcry by former Soviet officials:
Former Soviet president, Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, described the raid as a serious provocation against the independence of the media, while Communist Party leader Mr Gennady Zyuganov expressed anger at the use of masked men by the authorities […](https://www.irishtimes.com/news/armed-revenue-agents-storm-independent-media-group-1.270111)
Despite this raid—and despite the Russian government's so-called war against the media—much of the Russian public's perception was muted. This was mostly the result of a general loss of faith that the public had in the media in Russia. Kompromat was often disseminated in the traditional media. These secret wars in misinformation (mostly occurring during the late 1990's) left a stain on the reputation of investigative journalism in Russia. In fact, several famous reporters from those early 1990's turned out to be corrupt individuals, accepting pay-offs to write stories in favor of those cutting the checks.
This disdain for the traditional media meant that the Russian public was getting more accustomed to communicating and acquiring news on the Internet. For many, the Internet was the last frontier of free expression, but online news sites had little in the way of resources for investigative journalism. Reporters relied instead on bloggers for much of this. At the time, most bloggers and opinion writers were critical of Russian policy, and many of them had thousands of followers. And no platform was larger for Russian journalism than LiveJournal.
American programmer Brad Fitzpatrick started LiveJournal on April 15, 1999, as a way of keeping his high school friends updated on his activities. In January 2005, American blogging software company Six Apart purchased Danga Interactive, the company that operated LiveJournal, from Fitzpatrick.
Six Apart sold LiveJournal to Russian media company SUP Media in 2007; the service continued to operate out of the U.S. via a California-based subsidiary, LiveJournal, Inc., but began moving some operations to Russian offices in 2009. In December 2016, the service relocated its servers to Russia, and in April 2017, LiveJournal changed its terms of service to conform to Russian law. As with other social networks, a wide variety of public figures use the service, as do political pundits, who use it for political commentary, particularly in Russia, where it partners with the online newspaper Gazeta.ru.4
The Russian government was not happy with the growing collective of bloggers writing critically about policy. In the past (with more traditional media), the Russian government relied on loyal, wealthy associates that bought up media companies in order to bring them in line with the Kremlin's initiatives. But with the Internet, even though they turned to much of the same process, it was proving more difficult… but not impossible. A good example of this is how the Russian government has dealt with Yandex (Russia's version of Google or Yahoo!) over the years.
With Yandex, there was a constant tug-of-war between what the Russian government wanted and what the search engine was willing to produce. A lot was at stake here since, by the time the late 2000's came around, much of the middle class in Russia favored starting their day with the Yandex home page instead of the newspaper—much like people in the U.S used to do with Yahoo!.
Five top news items on Yandex's home page replaced the front pages of newspapers for millions of Russian Internet users.2
This made dealing with Yandex a touch-point for the Russian government, as they tried to ensure that the right details reached not just their citizens, but also users of Yandex in Ukraine and other former USSR territories.
Perhaps no use of the Internet or blogging to disrupt Russian politics is more well-known than that of Alexei Navalny.
In 2010, Navalny—a lawyer—used political blogging to capture a significant online audience in Russia. Previously, he had uncovered a loophole in obtaining government and corporate information when he bought stocks from companies like Gazprom. For roughly $10,000, he used his shares to exercise his right to receive information about various activities. With this information, Navalny then sued a number of business leaders on the basis of corruption.
Navalny himself has been mythologized in recent years because of his opposition to Vladimir Putin, but Navalny's pre-fame years leave much to be desired:
Over the previous decade Navalny tried different roads to prominence. He joined the democratic and socialist party Yabloko, from which he was expelled for his xenophobic views. In 2007 he founded a nationalistic movement, Narod, or People. He even took part in the Russian March, an anti-immigrants rally in Moscow, calling for Russia to separate from the North Caucasus. He didn’t gain popularity. 2
Despite past misgivings, Navalny was a stalwart critic of the Kremlin and spearheaded the use of Internet technology to voice dissent, organize protests, and create a formula to consistently be a thorn in the side of Putin and the ruling class. And Navalny wasn't the only one. Internet technology and online news propagation in general causes significant issues for the Russian government. Eventually, the Russian Ministry of Communications launched a registry for banned web sites and forced ISPs to comply. This put significant pressure on activists and opposition party leaders.
Anton Nossik—often dubbed one of the godfathers of the Russian Internet—was summoned by the Russian government for interrogation because of his involvement with launching Internet initiatives for opposition leaders. He would subsequently leave LiveJournal. This wouldn't be the first high profile technology resignation either. Shortly thereafter, Lev Gershenzon left Yandex, protesting that for years he tried to improve the various news algorithms while pushing back against the Russian authorities.
Although the Russian government was certainly having its troubles with media companies taking advantage of the new and open Internet, it was not having trouble with the development of secretive and onerous communication taps and other technological innovation used for keeping tabs on dissidents, citizens, and political opponents.
While facial recognition systems are currently being debated in public, much has been made about the role that engineers, programmers, etc. play in the development of these technologies. A role that seems devoid of contemplation about the ethics surrounding such technology. This attitude is similar with Russian engineers. In Russian, such a (lack of) debate is just a small look into a larger issue baked into the legacy of former Soviet culture. Engineers spent vast amounts of time and effort building security services and mechanisms for control, but despite knowing what these systems were going to be used for, there was no push back by these engineers.
Unlike medical doctors who were trained in ethics, engineers were not. They were taught to be technical servants of the state. As a result, generations of engineers were trained and worked their entire lives with little understanding of politics or trust of politicians and were suspicious of public activity as a whole. These engineers were focused on the immense technical needs of the Soviet Union and were comfortable with the concept of strict order because it suited their understanding of the mechanical world better than the often-unruly reality of freedom.2
Soviet Russia had always been knee deep in using technology to enhance surveillance. In fact, speech recognition had been an area of research in both the Soviet era and modern Russian era since the prevalence of telephone lines. The KGB was captivated by the prospects of applying new computer technologies to initiatives like phone tapping, and the growth of technology meant not just the growth of surveilling people, but also triggering recordings based on keywords.
Russian analyst Sergei Koval spent years working on speech recognition before government funding disappeared. When it did, he started a private company named the Speech Technology Center to continue this work with outside funding. This work ultimately culminated in a contract with Mexico. Today, Koval's technology is used in many of the former Soviet states, as well as in countries like Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Yemen.
Somewhat closer to current U.S. events, a recent trend over the last decade in Russia is to use "protection" as an excuse for censorship. For example, the Russian organization Cyberguards of the Safe Internet League have spent an enormous amount of time scouring the Internet to collect so-called "prohibited information."2 This group claims to want to protect children from harmful content, but the group is generally used to censor information on the Internet, and it does so with the full support of the Kremlin.
Russian's anxiety over Internet protests and organization further rose during the events of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring became a catch-all term for protests in multiple authoritarian countries where those country's leaders were eventually deposed (in many cases). The removal of these leaders was correlated with Internet collaboration, and seeing what was happening in these countries, Vladimir Putin made a push for "establishing international control over the internet" using the United Nations and its various offshoot organizations (including the International Telecommunication Union(ITU)).2 All this politicking was meant to increase Putin's control over Internet communication. Top ITU officials intended to change the rules for the Internet through a systemic review of an existing treaty (one previously updated in 1988). The ITU wanted to make the Internet subject to ITU regulatory powers. Google, however, launched a campaign against Russian's attempt at using the ITU for Internet regulation with Vint Cerf publishing a New York Times op-ed about keeping the Internet open. This was counter to Russia's attempt to delivery control of the Internet to individual countries in cases of internal affairs, national security, and any other excuse a government would use to try to control information and communication. 2 On last day of the ITU conference a new treaty was offered that would allow such silo-ed control. This new treaty was co-signed by almost 100 countries, including Russia. The final draft contained the following:
Member states should endeavour to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services.2
55 countries refused to sign the treaty, including most Western countries—effectively sinking its chances.
Despite this victory for the global Internet, many countries started to think of the Internet in terms of national control, especially in the face of the Edward Snowden revelations. We see much of this today with countries demanding that local ISPs and global corporations start storing data on servers within their country instead of in other countries. This isn't just isolated to nationalism and adversarial countries. After disclosures of her own cell phone being monitored by the NSA, German chancellor Angela Merkel discussed the idea of a European-based network with France's Francois Hollande in order to avoid the perceived American control of the Internet.
Then came Sochi.
Vladimir Putin put the FSB in charge of providing security for the Sochi Olympics, and in 2010 FSB general Oleg Syromolotov was appointed as the chairman of the Russian group that would oversee security at the games. Syromolotov’s appointment was believed to be significant by many journalists because it meant that Russia saw the Sochi games as an opportunity to collect intelligence on other countries. In a presentation on Olympic security, it was revealed that SORM boxes were being installed all over Sochi to cover communication. These were the same black boxes mentioned previously that the FSB used for spying on all sorts of communications throughout Russia.
Many questioned if the Sochi Olympics was a prototype for SORM deployment across the country. This would follow the exact same pattern of the communication changes made during the 1980's:
Even the antiriot police units known as OMON, which had beaten protesters during the demonstrations in 2011–2012, were formed because of the Moscow Olympics.2
On November 2012 it was announcement that free wireless Internet access would be provided at all venues, media centers, and hotels. All users, however, were required to log in and provide their spectator details to use the system. This ensured that the FSB had knowledge of all participating individuals.
If Sochi taught us anything it was that Russia was intent on controlling communication within their borders, but they also had eyes on controlling the messaging abroad.
In December of 2014, Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media) sent a warning to BuzzFeed for posting a video on YouTube that the Russian authorities characterized as extremist. This video was eventually removed, but not by BuzzFeed. It was removed by YouTube.
This sort of Big Tech censorship didn't stop with YouTube and its parent company Google. After protests at the trial of Alexi Nalvany were scheduled using Facebook, the prosecutor’s office in Russian issued a request to Roskomnadzor to block the event. This request was forwarded to Facebook, which complied, blocking the group that had the event posted. Facebook’s decision to comply triggered outrage in Moscow and around the world. As a result of this outcry, both Facebook and Twitter made decisions to not block future events created by Navalny’s supporters.
(Later in 2021, Google and Apple both removed Navalny's voting app from their stores after Russia accused the U.S. companies of meddling in Russian affairs.5)
But the stage was already set for Russia to impact messaging and communication outside its own walls.
Russia learned to weaponize the telecoms and that weaponization went across borders. As another example, in January of 2014, in 10 degree weather in Maidan, Ukraine, cell phones at a protest vibrated with a text message disguised as being a service message that said "Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance."2
The prospect that Ukrainian people were being surveilled by Russian intelligence did not sit well with the international community; All three Ukrainian mobile companies denied being involved in sending the message.
This paranoia over cyber-warfare with Russia progressed even further with the events that culminated in the annexation of Crimea. Although the expected larger cyber attack on Ukraine did not come, propaganda flowed freely through social networks, causing significant disruptions.
Russia has even managed to turn COVID into an opportunity deploying facial recognition and artificial intelligence under the guise of preventing community spread and enforcing quarantine, but instead, utilizing it to monitor dissidents:
Officials hailed Moscow's massive facial-recognition camera network as a benign aid to residents that would enforce quarantine restrictions, catch criminals and even let them pay subway fares. Now it’s being deployed to crush dissent against President Vladimir Putin.6
Russian police used the surveillance system to identify and detain Kremlin protesters who were supporting Alexei Navalny. At least 50 protesters were picked up over the course of several days, including several journalists.
While Russia had a eye towards controlling internal communications and external perceptions, for much of its Internet history, Russian tech companies got a pass. But eventually, Russia turned to scrutinize its own tech giants with the same skepticism and need for control it displayed outwardly.
As an example, it took a keen interest in the aforementioned Yandex and Yandex' roll in media aggregation. By virtue of how it displayed media content, Russia began to float the idea that Yandex was a media company, and by questioning whether Yandex was a media company, it would make any significant fallout likely to reduce Yandex' freedom from lawsuits. If Yandex had to register as a media company it would be subjected to Russian media and libel laws that had the potential to close the company down. This stand-off eventually led to Yandex announcing that it had agreed to register several of its services with the Russian government, resulting in it being placed on a list at Roskomnadzor as a company required to keep users' metadata for several months. This registration also required Yandex to offer remote access to this data to Russian intelligence.
One significant outcome of this strife: Yandex eventually started offering different maps of Ukraine for both Russian and Ukrainian users. When Russians would look at the map and see Crimea, it would be a part of Russia, but in Ukraine Crimea would still be a part of Ukraine. Yandex' position was that they would show Crimea according to the official positions in each country.
Russia was intent on controlling the message, especially in sensitive areas such as Ukraine. But in 2014 Russian and Ukrainian journalists looking over Internet profiles started finding dozens of photos on VKontakte by Russian soldiers boasting of Russian occupation. The Russian military was not aware of these photos, which identified their units and their geographic positions.
After all the Kremlin efforts to control information, the information about Ukraine freed itself.2
In truth, the real source of sensitive information during conflict in Ukraine was not journalists or activists, but instead it was soldiers. Most of these soldiers were young men, schooled by state-sponsored propaganda, and were happy to go into a war they felt was justified—boasting about their exploits along the way.
Social media had become the ultimate propaganda machine even rivaling that of Russia's own state-sponsored disinformation.
It's difficult to separate modern Russian disinformation from two people who have been so closely linked to Russia (for different reasons): Edward Snowden (mentioned earlier) and Donald Trump. We'll address former President Trump later, but for now, let's turn our attention to Edward Snowden post-NSA reveal. After the Snowden revelations—and after he was interviewed on television—Snowden left Hong Kong and was nearly immediately grounded in Moscow.
The cascade of revelations from Snowden had the side effect of pointing a finger at American intelligence services—something that benefited Russian propaganda. In fact, at one point, a member of Vladimir Putin's contingent even suggested nominating Snowden for a Nobel Prize. Putin used the Snowden revelations to expand the power of Russian intelligence agencies over the Internet, and they did it all while presenting it as a way to protect privacy against the business and governmental interests of the US.
Russia was placed in a position to use Snowden's notoriety to be a consistent thorn in the side of an American government that claimed to represent freedom. Alexei Venediktov even established the idea of having the Russian Association for Electronic Communications create a new award named after Snowden.
For his part, Snowden kept a low profile. In fact, even though Snowden was criticized by many journalists for his asylum in Russia, he rarely responded to such criticism, accepting that he was existing in some weird limbo. Alternatively, the Kremlin stayed clear of Snowden, believing that he would be more valuable if seen as an independent thinker instead of a tool for Kremlin propaganda.
Donald Trump, however, didn't fair as well.
In March of 2016, prior to the United States presidential election, a hacking team named APT28—Fancy Bear—joined the hacking fray and launched an attack on the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Fancy Bear hackers eventually made significant progress, getting into Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's email by phishing him for his Gmail password. Many cybersecurity experts believed that Fancy Bear had been around since at least 2007—prior to any Russian military cyberattacking initiative. Although questionable, many in the media believed that the activities of Russian hackers—combined with WikiLeaks—created just enough problems for Hillary Clinton to sway the electorate.
After the 2016 election, Trump's so-called connections with Russia were continually drummed up as media fodder, possibly spurned on by propaganda. This was highlighted with the infamous Steele Dossier. From the start, the Steele Dossier had issues: Names were misspelled or details misattributed. A good example being how the FSB unit known as Department K was described as responsible for putting together documents on Clinton, but in reality, Department K has nothing to do with eavesdropping or cyberattacks. There is another Department K in the Interior Ministry that oversees cyber investigations. The dossier also detailed how hacking operations had been organized through various informal channels and bad actors. The FSB was named as the primary culprit and sponsor for cyberattacks.
Despite some hints of truth, the dossier was littered with unverified claims and large mistakes.
The extent of Russian hacking involvement aside, Russian propaganda was highly successful with a candidate such as Trump. Trump even quote information fabricated by the pro-Russian agency Sputnik, while attributing the details to Russia.
Despite news reports to the contrary, Russian hackers did not hack polling stations or infrastructure during the 2016 presidential election. Propaganda and messaging, however, played a very large role. This messaging was widely distributed through social media in the United States, supported by leaks often obtained or promoted by Russian hackers. Conspiracy theories about Clinton and so-called "evidence" of wrongdoing were picked up by the pro-Russian media and then promoted by troll farms across Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere. Trump was only guilty of being very successful in exploiting these propaganda attempts.
To bring back a point mentioned earlier: Social media has become the ultimate propaganda machine even rivaling that of Russia's own state-sponsored disinformation.