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Wednesday, June 26 News

Chat with ... CBS Correspondent Jeff Pegues, author of new book on Russian hacking

WESTPORT — In the summer of 2016, Jeff Pegues received tips from alarmed members of the intelligence community, who said Russia was launching an operation to influence the presidential election, and the U.S. government was doing nothing to stop it.

Working out of the Internet Research Agency based in St. Petersburg, Russian bots, who Russian President Vladimir Putin called “patriotic hackers,” spread incorrect information on social media about immigrants attacking American women and the presence of guns and fights at protests, Pegues said.

“They exploited this country’s Achilles’ heel, which was race. They wanted to sow division, create chaos, stir things up. So how do you do that in America? You poke at these issues of race or immigration,” said Pegues, a CBS News justice and Homeland Security correspondent and Westport native.

The bots created Facebook groups advertising fabricated protests against immigrants and groups like Black Lives Matter, and reached out to Americans to help organize the events.

“There were Americans unwittingly helping them organize what were essentially fake events. That’s amazing. It’s remarkable,” Pegues, 48, said.

The low-cost Russian bot operation is all part of the “Russian playbook,” a strategy to to alter American politics in Russia’s favor by changing American public opinion through the spread of false information on social media, Pegues said. The U.S. government was slow to understand Russia’s strategy and failed to respond in time for the 2016 election, Pegues added, noting much of the public is still in the dark about the extent and impact of Russia’s influence campaign.

For the nightly newscast, Pegues collected all the knowledge he could on the Russian campaign, but the 22-minute window of news coverage forced him to leave some information out. Seeking another vehicle to convey the information, Pegues wrote a book, “Kompromat: How Russia Undermined American Democracy,” published by Prometheus Books in July.

“The point of my book is that if you can influence how we think, what we see, what we hear, then you can influence how we vote. You don’t actually have to have someone hacking into a voting machine, which you can’t do, and change results. Just change how people think before they get into the voting booth, that’s enough,” Pegues said.

“Kompromat” is Pegues’ second book and follows on the heels of his first book, “Black and Blue: Inside the Divide between the Police and Black America,” published last year.

Throughout his decadeslong career, Pegues has led the nightly newscast as a television reporter in cities across the country, including New York City, where he spent 10 years at WABC-TV before moving to Washington, D.C. ,to join CBS News five years ago.

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Despite his travels, Pegues said he still considers Westport home. The Pegues family first moved to town in 1982 from Paris for Pegues’ father to take a position in private banking at Citibank’s Stamford office. Pegues’ parents both came from Alabama, but chose Westport for the good schools and his mother’s love of Paul Newman, who also lived in town.

An all-conference football player and all-state track star, Pegues thrived in Westport and was voted Homecoming King his senior year.

“I liked growing up here. There weren’t a lot of black families here at the time, but I felt like for the most part, I was welcomed here and my family was welcomed here, and we enjoyed it. Which is why I still come back,” Pegues said.

When Pegues left for Miami University of Ohio, where he was a scholarship football player and starting wide receiver, he thought he would pursue medicine, but an aversion to blood left him searching for another path.

“After practice one day, I was walking by the television station on campus and I saw they were having auditions, so I walked in, auditioned and one of the professors who was leading the auditions said, ‘I think you have a future in this business.’ The rest is history,” Pegues said.

As a football player, a lot of people thought Pegues should do sportscasting, but he chose to pursue news. “At the time, there were more black sportscasters than there were black newscasters, so I decided I want to do news. Let me try to break some new ground here,” Pegues said.

Aside from being a role model for young black men who don’t often see positive images of African-Americans in the media, Pegues said he wanted to expose wrongdoing, learn about people,and present unbiased information — which motivated him to write “Kompromat.”

“Everything gets so political these days and I try not to appear to be taking sides. There is misinformation out there, and people and nation-states whose goal it is to spread misinformation. So in my own little way, I want to counter that with facts,” Pegues said.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

Sophie Vaughan|Reporter, Stamford Advocate