By Peter Apps
“Missed a train? Lost a vote? Blame us!” reads one of the many posters recently posted on London’s underground transport system for RT, the Russian-based satellite broadcaster formerly known as Russia Today.
The ads are yet another sign of just how overtly Moscow and its outlets have been revelling in their newfound reputation for driving events in Western politics. But it also points to a growing and increasingly difficult dynamic. As the United States, Britain and other European nations obsess ever more deeply about potential Russian interference within their borders, they ironically risk playing further into the Kremlin’s hands.
President Donald Trump might remain unconvinced, but outside the White House there remains little doubt that President Vladimir Putin’s government has deliberately attempted to drive political events in Europe and the United States. US intelligence agencies are united in their conclusion that Moscow interfered directly during the 2016 presidential election, primarily through hacking Democratic Party e-mails and disseminating their content to discredit Hillary Clinton.
In Europe the evidence is even more widespread. The European Union’s counter-disinformation campaign “EU Disinfo” says it has tracked more than 1,300 examples of pro-Kremlin interference this year. Moscow’s hand is seen as trying to drive support for the far right across the continent as well as a host of disparate causes like Brexit and independence for Catalonia.
Particularly in its most recent campaigns, social media analysts believe Russia has been using an army of automated social media feeds, dubbed “bots”, to get its message across. But it also has more traditional media arms such as the website “Sputnik” and the RT network.
Both Sputnik and RT have their own considerable web presence. Google last month announced it would “derank” both to give them less prominence on Google News and other platforms. Their stories, however, continue to be widely spread on other social media.
Even directly Russian government-linked social media outlets such as the Russian embassy Twitter feed in London have been openly “trolling” western governments and institutions, mocking them with jokes and sometimes ungrammatical rants.
None of this behaviour is entirely new – but it does appear to have increased substantially in the last two years. Ever since Russia annexed Crimea and began a wider war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, a growing number of Western analysts have believed that Putin is deliberately doing whatever he can generate discord and chaos within the West.
Even more than the intensity of Russia’s activity, the level of attention now paid to it has increased. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May recently devoted an entire speech to the topic, saying such actions “threaten the international order”.
In the United States, meanwhile, the focus is on the potentially paralysing consequences of prosecutor Robert Mueller’s probe of potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow – particularly now that former US national security adviser Michael Flynn has cut a deal to cooperate with the inquiry after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador last December.
There is clearly a difficult balance here. Many in the West, particularly former members of the Obama administration, feel they were caught out by the scale and intent of Russian activity, especially during the 2016 US election.
The risk, however, is that the level of attention now being devoted to Russian hacking, manipulation of social media and other questionable political activities furthers Putin’s goal of delegitimising Western governments while boosting Russia’s reputation for being able to call the shots.
For all the evidence of Russian activity, we may never know to what extent Moscow truly affected the outcomes of any of the political contests in which it dabbled. We know that a pro-Kremlin institution bought ads on Facebook to provoke partisanship in the United States. We know that significant numbers of American voters went online to search for the hacked political emails Russia apparently gave to Wikileaks. But, as analyst Nate Silver notes, “there just isn’t a clean-cut story in the data.”
On the surface, the volume of potential Russian interference on social media can seem massive. According to one estimate, Russian-related Twitter feeds were responsible for more than 1.5 million election-related tweets during the 2016 campaign. However, compared to the sheer volume of other election-related material published during the campaign, the Russian contribution is unlikely to have been the only factor.
The same is true when it comes to the rise of Europe’s far right. There’s no doubt that Russia has pushed some very divisive storylines, including around the alleged rape of a 13-year-old Russian-speaking girl in Germany by Arab migrants – an incident authorities say was later proven never to have happened. Those who monitor far-right chat rooms closely, however, say that Russia -related content remains only a very small proportion of the traffic. Most simply remains homegrown, according to a report by the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs.
That doesn’t mean Russian involvement isn’t real. But by focusing on it to the exclusion of other variables, political establishments in Europe and the US all too often give the impression of looking for scapegoats. That may paradoxically reduce the prospects of addressing reasons for the underlying political issues that led to dissatisfied Britons voting to leave the European Union and disaffected US citizens voting for a polarising candidate like Trump.
In the UK, those issues included frustration at the mainstream political establishment over multiple issues, immigration in particular. In the United States Trump’s rise too was partly because he was able to tap into the alienation and frustration of those who’d lost their jobs to workers in other countries.
Russia clearly did what it could to exploit those feelings and trends, but it did not create them. Politicians need to find ways to address their concerns and reduce political polarisation, not look for excuses about why voters turned against them.
That is obviously easier said than done – every Western government has been desperately searching for policy solutions since the 2008 financial crisis, with often relatively little to show for it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not vital that policymakers continue to try. The Kremlin’s narrative is aimed not just at undermining individual governments and institutions, but the entire idea of Western democracy itself.
The West needs to be alert to Russian meddling, and giving people the information they need to detect it is important. But if the West is tempted to make Moscow take the blame for all its ills, it will end up furthering the Kremlin’s strategy more than Putin might ever have hoped.
Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues @pete_apps