Lucky you, another post in the vein of why leftists should be concerned with Russian influence operations. I guess I’ll make this the last piece on the topic for a while and we can call this a trilogy.
First of all there’s a good article about the leftist case for embracing the Russia investigation I want to include here. I use the term “embrace” here because that’s what the author used, though I think it requires some qualification. As the response to one of my posts on this topic demonstrated, there are some people on the left who seem eager to deliberately misinterpret this concept into an absurd strawman that they can knock down with ease. Embracing, or better yet acknowledging the significance of the Russian intervention in American politics doesn’t mean going down the rabbit hole into Eric Garland and Louise Mensch’s Wonderland of Drug-Fueled Insanity. It doesn’t mean we need to praise “never Trumpers” like John McCain, David Frum, or the gaggle of ex-CIA directors who have been online registering their horror and shock at Trump. Believe it or not, you can exercise moderation, critical thinking, and time management to devote the proper amount of energy and attention to this subject while still carrying on the everyday struggle against injustice.
If that seems too difficult maybe you should have a look at what neocon hawk Bernie Sanders had to say on the topic:
“While we rightly condemn Russian and Iranian support for Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter in Syria, the United States continues to support Saudi Arabia’s destructive intervention in Yemen, which has killed many thousands of civilians and created a humanitarian crisis in one of the region’s poorest countries. Such policies dramatically undermine America’s ability to advance a human rights agenda around the world, and empowers authoritarian leaders who insist that our support for those rights and values is not serious.”
What’s that, Bernie? You’re talking about the bad things the US government does and acknowledging that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal tyrant? What are you doing?
“Inequality, corruption, oligarchy and authoritarianism are inseparable. They must be understood as part of the same system, and fought in the same way. Around the world we have witnessed the rise of demagogues who once in power use their positions to loot the state of its resources. These kleptocrats, like Putin in Russia, use divisiveness and abuse as a tool for enriching themselves and those loyal to them.”
What are you doing, Bernie? What the hell are you even talking about?! This speech is all the US government needs to justify a full-scale invasion of Russia, Syria, and Iran, simultaneously!
All joking aside, I’m not going to pretend like Bernie is some kind of Ayatollah and his word is holy writ. Rather I’m just pointing out that we can talk about this issue without turning into a fanatical Hillary Lost Causer or worse- Louise Mensch. And believe me, we do need more awareness about Russian propaganda.
As I’ve written plenty of times before, the idea that Russia’s “information war” can somehow wreck “Western democracy” or “the liberal order” is, indeed, hysteria. The extent to which the Kremlin has managed to reach its tentacles into that so-called liberal order is more the fault of free market, profits-over-people dogma than clever strategy and sophistication on the Russian side. And while that liberal order sanctions Putin for his violation of Ukraine’s borders, their promises to lift the sanctions should he return to the pre-2014 status quo strongly suggests that they will turn a blind eye to the brutalization of Russia’s citizens within the Federation’s inviolable borders. But while the propaganda machine is no real existential threat to the liberal order, it is a threat to the radical left seeking to replace that order.
I have already written about the ways in which accepting “help” from pro-Kremlin or Kremlin linked sources can de-legitimize or discredit the left, and lead us into awkward associations with our sworn enemies on the far right. Outdated prejudices have also led leftists into falling for Russian narratives about events like Maidan, thus preventing international solidarity and squandering a great opportunity for leftist demonstrators to learn from that event and the activists who drove it (who, contrary to the Russian propaganda, were not mostly radical right-wing nationalists or neo-Nazis). But if we’re going to talk worst case scenarios, some leftists could lose far more.
Recently we learned that the so-called St. Petersburg Troll Factory (actually known as the Internet Research Agency) actually managed to organize a few real-world protests from abroad. One of them was basically a dud, but another managed to draw a few thousand protesters. Both events targeted more or less polar opposites of the political spectrum- an anti-Muslim rally to appeal to right-wing Islamophobes and an anti-police/anti-Trump rally aimed at Black Lives Matter and their supporters. It is important at this point to note that the Internet Research Agency has no interest in actually advancing one cause or another. A survey of its foreign-audience propaganda in recent years show that it is dedicated to causing “chaos” more than anything. Moreover, it is not, in any way that we can see so far, directly controlled by the Russian government or security apparatus. It is the project of one of Putin’s lower-tier sycophants, Evgeny Prigozhin. It is unlikely to go away anytime soon and it’s not going to stop its ever-evolving campaign of trolling and manipulation.
Taking into account those protests and the fact that this operation will most likely continue, do I really need to explain why it might be bad for leftists to attend protests or events that have been organized by anonymous people in foreign countries with no connection to the local community, no concern for the attendees’ safety, and whose goals include causing as much chaos in the streets as possible? If this project continues, it’s certainly reasonable to expect them to try to combine left-wing and right-wing protests in the same location so as to cause violent clashes. People on our side could be duped into attending events where they are caught unawares of the right-wing presence and dangerously outnumbered. The fact that this is a realistic possibility warrants spreading awareness of such propaganda methods. We should remember that within our own borders there are legions of online cowards who also attempt to cause chaos in the real world, and thus anything that enhances awareness of threats and security culture among activists would be a net positive.
But we don’t need to talk about nightmare scenarios to justify avoiding anything Kremlin-linked like the plague. For me, long before I started blogging, the main reason was a matter of dignity. Why should we defend or accept anything from people who despise us and our politics? Make no mistake that the people behind networks like RT and Sputnik, the people in the Kremlin-linked think tanks- they all hate and revile you. You see yourself as a dissident standing up to the crimes of your government, but they see you as nothing but a dirty traitor. Your dissent to them is a defect. Many of them consciously hate your political beliefs too. They hate “multi-culturalism,” “tolerance,” and “non-traditional sexual orientations,” but they’re perfectly willing to provide you with a platform if it serves their government’s geopolitical goals. Why would you let yourself be used like that?
Again, anyone who thinks tackling the Russian propaganda issue entails adopting and/or embracing xenophobic rhetoric about “the Russian other,” the insane talking points of characters like Mensch, Garland, or Schindler, figures like John McCain, or the US national security apparatus either doesn’t understand the topic or is being deliberately obtuse and creating a strawman. This isn’t even about Russia; it’s about the current Russian government. It’s about international solidarity instead of hopelessly outdated, hypocritical, and unrealistic forms of “anti-imperialism” that have been nothing but a proven failure. It’s about moral consistency in a movement that is supposed to be about a moral imperative.
And if this isn’t the kind of topic you prefer to discuss because you’re using up all your activist energy on other issues- fine. That’s a totally justifiable position. It doesn’t mean you can’t at least educate yourself enough to understand how the issue effects you. More importantly, there are ways you can help by not talking. Specifically, don’t share stories or links from Russian government sources or outlets that do. Don’t regurgitate Kremlin talking points about issues like Ukraine, Syria, or Russia’s internal opposition (this is not the same as looking at those issues with a critical eye). And most of all, don’t attack people for criticizing the Putin regime or people who do choose to talk about this issue.
In short, we have to be aware that now, in addition to manipulation from the authorities in our own countries, there is also an added component of manipulation from abroad. The Kremlin is just one player with the most effective propaganda at the moment (unless you count ISIS as an international player). There will probably be more in the coming years, I’m sad to say. Accepting this reality isn’t watering down our message or putting us in league with our own authorities and their security apparatus. It is simply an inherent part of the ongoing struggle.