Connecting the seemingly infinite threads of online trolling, Russian subterfuge and the astonishing evolution of American politics has become a favorite past-time of impassioned intellectuals raging against the Trump administration. In trying to pinpoint all the significant factors that led to Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, some have identified Russia’s interest in American affairs as the key to understanding how we got to where we are today. As Alex Gibney lays out in his new HBO docuseries “Agents of Chaos,” that’s not a specious argument; there is ample evidence that the combination of Russian motivation to campaign against Hillary Clinton combined with Trump’s personal interest in forging Russian relations merged at the right time to catastrophic ends. And yet, “Agents of Chaos” runs into the same problem as most attempts to explain this perfect storm of interests, namely: it is extremely difficult to explain every connection of this complex web without drowning in all the specifics.
“Agents of Chaos,” which unfolds in two episodes running two hours long each, takes a birds-eye view at all the ways in which Russia did, and could still, interfere in American politics. The first episode, directed by Gibney, focuses on the mobilization and efficacy of online trolls before transitioning to how sowing online discord led to the game-changing moment of Russian hackers infiltrating the Democratic National Committee. The second episode, directed by Gibney and Javier Alberto Botero, shifts to explaining all the connections Trump’s personal and professional networks have to Russia, and how a series of aborted business deals led to his campaign allegedly gaining access to election intel. Both rely on slick graphics, Gibney’s wry voiceover and a soundtrack that’s both pointed and more than occasionally distracting in its attempt to underline the drama of the narrative. “Agents of Chaos” may be airing on HBO, but it would be right at home in MSNBC primetime.
The second episode will no doubt be the one to grab the most attention, with its focus on the revolving door of Trump associates, some interviewed in the series, who kept finding themselves in Moscow. But it’s the first — with its patient, in-depth examination of why online trolls can be so effective — that ends up being the far more illuminating chapter. Speaking with intelligence experts, former trolls and reporters who have investigated the “farms” from whence they came, “Agents of Chaos” lays out not just how creating online chaos works, but why it can be such a powerful weapon. Cyber researcher Camille Francois is especially clear in her explanations of how trolls identify and exploit hot spots of potential aggravation — which, in America’s case, includes anything surrounding race and immigration. As she patiently details how, for instance, Russian trolls thousands of miles away from the United States identified Black Lives Matter as a particularly volatile area, and disseminated resentment towards the movement through snarky Twitter memes, it’s hard not to want to throw your phone clean out the window and log off forever.
It’s disappointing, then, to see how Gibney’s script takes such fascinating dissections and boils them down in simpler, but messier ways. When discussing the fake Black Lives Matter groups, for instance, he immediately points to a few aimed at battleground states in which Clinton eventually lost the vote by relatively slim margins, and lists how many thousands of followers they had. The point then becomes that Clinton might not have lost if it weren’t for these groups, but that takeaway doesn’t account for several factors, like how Barack Obama appealed to some specific demographics more than Clinton and vice versa. It also ignores a truth that, for all her general obfuscating, RT.com editor-in-chief Margarita Simonyan elucidates plainly: many Americans, regardless of whatever Russia put out there, were more drawn to Trump simply because they liked him.
Putting forth some level of educated conjecture is understandable when tackling a slippery, unquantifiable subject like how much the internet does or doesn’t influence mindsets. And with dozens of key players, it’s all too easy to get a bit lost in the weeds. But for as much research as Gibney and company clearly did in order to build the series on firm ground, in the absence of any rock solid answers, “Agents of Chaos” ends up drawing frustratingly simplistic connections between its more fascinating themes.
“Agents of Chaos” airs Wednesday, Sept. 23, and Thursday, Sept. 24, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.