WASHINGTON — Since the emergence of an unverified dossier with salacious claims about President-elect Donald J. Trump, Americans have debated the ramifications of the arrival of “kompromat” as a feature of American politics.
But those debates — for example, over the ethics of publishing the dossier — have often framed this practice as little more than a political form of blackmail, and one particular to Russia.
In fact, kompromat is more than an individual piece of damaging information: It is a broader attempt to manufacture public cynicism and confusion in ways that target not just one individual but an entire society.
And although this practice tends to be associated with Russia — the word kompromat is a portmanteau of the Russian words for “compromising” and “information” — it is a common feature of authoritarian and semiauthoritarian nations around the world.
Specific leaks may take aim at powerful individuals, but in the longer term, kompromat serves the interests of the powerful, which is why it is often a tool of autocrats. By eroding the very idea of a shared reality, and by spreading apathy and confusion among a public that learns to distrust leaders and institutions alike, kompromat undermines a society’s ability to hold the powerful to account and ensure the proper functioning of government.
The fog of disinformation
When Katy E. Pearce, a professor of communications at the University of Washington in Seattle, began studying access to technology in Azerbaijan, she expected to focus her research on how it could be a positive tool for promoting political freedom. But she changed her tack after encountering widespread fear of the ways that the government could use technology as a tool of repression.
“When I was interviewing people, it kept on coming up and coming up,” she said. Kompromat is “a very cheap and easy way for the regime to demonstrate its power, and to harass people in a very visible way,” she added.
That was a danger and a deterrent for the young activists she spoke to. But individual targets of kompromat are not its only victims, Professor Pearce said. It also harms society by diminishing public trust.
Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at King’s College London, wrote on Twitter that disinformation campaigns have “often deliberately blended accurate and forged details” to sow distrust and confusion.
If the news media and public figures publicize lies, they lose their credibility as trustworthy sources of information. “There’s no reliable truth to rest upon,” Professor Pearce said. “Every piece of information you get is ‘possibly true, possibly false.’”
Degrading that trust can be deeply damaging. While in Russia in 2015, I was struck by how many of the people I met saw the world through a lens that I began to call the “prudent hypothetical.” They reacted to all information, whether from official sources or thirdhand rumors, as if it might be true. I came to realize that it was a self-protective impulse, a way to prepare for any potential outcome in an unpredictable, unreliable world.
But they were also careful not to rely on that information, lest it turn out to be a fabrication. They trusted only the facts they had verified themselves, and only the people to whom they had close personal ties.