Russian interference in the virtual world is not the problem

If there were no Russian "influence operations" in the virtual world, no disinformation campaign spearheaded by Russian bots and trolls, would the western world look much different today?

Tom Junes
22 February 2018

Robert Mueller. (c) James Berglie/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.It's Mueller time, again. Or rather, it's time to charge up the headline generators about Russian interference and Putin's "master plan" to undermine the west. In the wake of the recent indictments of 13 Russians for attempted meddling in the 2016 US presidential elections, the international media produced a hail storm of articles and op-eds about Russian trolls and bots on social media apparently capable of influencing political outcomes and more in the west.

It doesn't seem to matter that most of the revelations were already known and first reported on by Russian media. Instead, it appears that the "Russian threat" is now more real than ever and will impact anything from the upcoming elections in Italy to the mid-term elections in the United States. Even Silicon Valley's Tech Giants are now apparently dismayed that their products might have indeed changed the world, though not in the way they intended. But this should not be surprise us. After all, we are living in an era of "hybrid war" in which social media are a "tool" for Russian bots and trolls to succeed in what the erstwhile Soviet propaganda and intelligence network could only have dreamed of during the Cold War.

The techno-fetishism surrounding social media, compounded by the hours per day millions of us spend on Twitter or Facebook, has managed to blur the lines between wishful thinking and reality, between the "virtual world" and the real world beyond the immediate vicinity of our screens. Could it not be that we are giving social media too much credit, from inciting mass protests and even "revolutions" to enabling hostile foreign election meddling? 

Ukraine and the rise of the Russian threat

In early November 2013, there was no mention of a "Russian threat" let alone a "hybrid war" waged against the west. This changed in a matter of months as mass protests erupted in Ukraine following then president Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. The Euromaidan protests and ensuing Revolution of Dignity were a political earthquake nobody had expected, even though it happened in a period of increasing global protests, and it pitted Russia and the west against each other.

However, geopolitical rivalry over influence in Ukraine was not new. Russia had installed a trade blockade against Ukraine in the summer of 2013 in order to pressure Yanukovych to refrain from signing the Association Agreement and consider joining the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union project. But back then there was no perception of any "Russian threat". So little did that possibility seem to be considered by western leaders and commentators that from today's perspective it is hard to believe how complacently and overconfidently EU politicians and US diplomats approached the issue of Ukraine's opening to Europe.

While Ukraine and its population paid the highest price for Russia's geopolitical gambit, the west was in shock

It was Russia's occupation and annexation of Crimea, and its subsequent backing for the insurgency in Donbas that set off alarm bells in the west. The idea that Moscow would react militarily to what had been a national uprising in a neighbouring country showed that Russia and its leadership was serious about being seen as a Great Power which is prepared to act in defence of what it saw as its vital interests. While Ukraine and its population paid the highest price for Russia's geopolitical gambit, the west was in shock. Instead of reflecting upon their earlier miscalculations and lack of caution regarding Ukraine and Russia, western political elites and commentators suddenly reverted to mirroring a Russian discourse of an aggressive and expansive west by invoking an exaggerated Russian threat. 

Western politics as Russian conspiracies

The fallout from the unexpected turn of events in Ukraine evolved into what came to be coined as a "new Cold War". Despite the recurring alarmism of some commentators and analysts about a Russian military threat, neither any significant escalation of the war in Ukraine, nor any purported Russian act of aggression against the west has materialised in the past years. Rather, the threat of the so-called "hybrid war" has become internalised while the Ukraine crisis has gradually been forgotten as it no longer captures international headlines. The invisible hand of the Kremlin is now used as an explanation ad absurdum for major political events that transpire in the west.

From SYRIZA's ill-fated attempt to challenge the externally-imposed austerity package to the outbreak of the Catalan crisis, from debatable electoral successes of far right parties in Europe to the unexpected victory of Donald Trump in the US presidential election, western commentators and politicians have been quick to point the finger to alleged Russian interference or conspiratorial Kremlin-linked destabilising activity as causal explanations instead of looking at deeper societal and historical developments - even if some of the latter are blatantly obvious and common-sensical albeit uncomfortable explanations. 

The perceived crisis in the west in its various forms is not of Russia's making. This is not to say that Moscow stays aloof from western affairs. Of course Russia does not, just as it did not in the past (i.e. prior to the Ukraine crisis when there was no perception of a Russian threat). But "Russian subversive activity" should not be blown out of proportion. In countries like Ukraine that share a border with Russia, the Kremlin can afford to rely on its military power. In other parts of the world, Russia acts as a spoiler, projecting itself as a counter-weight to the west’s hegemony, and makes use of its energy and financial assets or applying soft power. 

None of this really threatens the western liberal order. Nowhere has the Kremlin thwarted the west. The threat to western liberal democracies is internal. The longer western elites, policy makers and commentators keep ignoring this fact, the greater that threat will become — regardless of what Russia does or does not do. If there was a time when western observers rightly pointed to how Putin's authoritarian regime bolstered itself by seeking to blame "western interference" or "western aggression" for problems not of the west's making, then it is time to acknowledge that we are increasingly seeing a similar phenomenon in the west. By reverting to a "blame-Russia game" we are undermining our own democracies.

The disinformation about disinformation 

In the wake of the Ukraine crisis with the occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Donbas, we clearly saw a Russian propaganda effort compounded by the murky realities of oligarch-owned media companies in an environment where Russian-language media outlets have a transnational impact. As a result, disinformation spread through both traditional and new media outlets. Ultimately, this was a classic effect of war and military operations, which back in 2014 also turned the virtual world of social media into a proxy battlefield to "win hearts and minds". 

But it is a distortion of reality to compare the Ukrainian context to the influence of Russian disinformation, twitter bots or facebook trolls in the west. First of all, because Russia does not have a monopoly on disinformation. Western Europeans who opposed the war in Iraq still remember how Anglo-American media promoted the Bush administration's invasion plans based on false claims of stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.

Social media are, of course, a technological innovation that protesters use to communicate and spread information. But it does not cause people to mobilise

Secondly, what is classified as Russian disinformation? Much of the "disinformation" we see circulating can be easily categorised as tabloid-like lies and gossip. In this sense, British tabloids can claim much credit for the Leave campaign's victory in the Brexit referendum. If only because the tabloid press has a much larger market share and distribution than any organised Russian disinformation campaign could have mustered. Similarly, US cable news market leader FOX News' years-long anti-Obama and anti-Hillary spin surely must have had more impact on American voters than a series of Russian-made memes spread on facebook? 

In Bulgaria, historically a country where a significant part of society maintains sympathetic views towards Russia, research has shown that what is often seen as "Russian propaganda" is rather a home-grown phenomenon of "pro-Russian propaganda". The fact that similar tropes of political discourse appear as in Russia does not necessarily imply that these tropes were deliberately infused elsewhere by some Kremlin-ordered operation. The German Marshall Fund’s "Hamilton 68 tool for tracking Russian influence operations" lists MAGA (Make America Great Again) as a top hashtag and FOX News as a top url spread by an undisclosed list of Russian bots on twitter. It suffices to note that neither MAGA nor FOX News were conceived in Russia. 

The power of social media fallacy 

The significance of social media should not be inflated. Researchers of protest movements still debate the veracity of so-called Twitter or Facebook "revolutions". The internet and social media has become an important mainstay in most of our lives. Yet, research has demonstrated that social media works against mobilisation as it leads to "slacktivism" while the impact of twitter and facebook on protests and their ability to force political change has likewise been qualified

Social media are, of course, a technological innovation that protesters use to communicate and spread information. But it does not cause people to mobilise. On the contrary, authoritarian regimes have proven quite successful in using social media to counter possible mobilisation. In this light, it is doubtful whether the activity of Russian bots and trolls or the dissemination of Russian-made memes on social media could provide a platform to mobilise voters in any country to elect a candidate or a party preferred by the Kremlin. 

We should thus be wary of sensationalist stories about Russian disinformation campaigns or the activity of Russian bots and trolls in the social media bubble. The fact that disinformation can be spread via social media does not necessarily imply that this leads to actions by those who are exposed to it. Does this mean Russian interference should not be investigated? No, it should, but it needs to be put in right perspective. As Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian intelligence and crime networks, poignantly commented, this is about crime not politics. The Mueller indictments are an effort to prove "whether crimes were committed under US law", and the indictments are not a conviction so "unless and until there is proof, we should be cautious."

The war in Ukraine and western politics are two very different realities. Instead of amplifying hysterics about what goes on in the virtual world, western policy makers and commentators should better focus on the roots of the problems on which disinformation preys and through which it resonates. To phrase this as a counter-factual question: if there were no Russian "influence operations" in the virtual world, no "disinformation campaign" spearheaded by Russian bots and trolls, would the western world look much different today?


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