Greg Lance – Watkins
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It’s no secret that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump like each other. But what’s less known is how Russia is attempting to support Trump through social media, by helping galvanise and motivate extremists who in turn support the controversial Republican candidate.
A network of Russian-backed anti-Western websites are linked with American white supremacist, sovereign citizen, and conspiracy theory sites. Activists connected to those sites support the Trump campaign, often parroting Moscow’s criticism of the US, NATO and the general ills of Western society.
“There appears to be some kind of alignment across social media between these extremist groups in the West and the Russian groups,” said Peter Singer, US-based strategist at the New America Foundation. “The key is how much of it is fandom and shared interests (both support Trump, for example) and how much of it is direct inspiration and coordination.”
One of the most prominent Russian sponsors of this network is an ideologue and sociologist named Alexandr Dugin. He has made direct appeals to Americans to support Trump, even describing his views as a ‘guideline’. Another site thought to be owned by “hipster Kremlin propagandist” Konstantin Rykov compiles stories about Trump under the URL “Trump 2016”.
How can Russia do this?
A flurry of online support for Trump, much of it loaded with racist, confrontational terms, has helped establish momentum for the billionaire online during the Republican primaries. While Trump led the polls from the beginning, the army of social media users (some anonymous, some not) have helped keep Trump’s every statement trending on Twitter. Many of these tweeters, like racist extremist Richard Spencer, spout reliably pro-Russia and pro-Putin messages as well.
Planners in Hillary’s war room questioning how Trump has got so much free publicity should take note of this pro-Trump tweeter’s description (who for the record doesn’t appear pro-Putin) of how to game the medium: “Social media has become a source of news in and of itself for the very lazy journalism industry over the last few years. They skim what other people find interesting, put it into 300-700 words or less of boilerplate, and boom, content. Hundreds of millions of people rely on Facebook’s trending column or their Twitter feeds for this kind of news, and some of that news itself is recursively drawn from those trend lists. Nothing has to even happen in the real world … for us to become newsworthy anymore. We just meme things into reality.”
Make America Great Again – Russian style. Photo: “Trump 2016”
No beginning, no end
Not only do things not have to happen, items that go viral can have no traceable starting point either. Racist, threatening, anti-Semitic tweets violate Twitter’s terms of service and can be removed. But their memes and ideas and momentum live on well after the initial posts have been removed. So who cares when and where the ball got rolling? This is a tactic Dugin himself has used on another subject: Ukraine. He once posted a fake video about a boy who was crucified by pro-Western militants in the country. Dugin encouraged retaliation but then later deleted the video, wrote Andrey Tolstoy and Edmund McCaffray in World Affairs. “In particular, [Dugin] has exploited the mechanism of instantaneous publishing on the internet to retract or dissociate himself from controversial claims without harming their ability to propagate,” they wrote, describing what others call a “social cyber attack”.
The American Freedom Party supports white identity and, of course, Vladimir Putin Photo: American Freedom Party
What effect is it having?
For the US, as with other Western democracies, Russian efforts to raise the volume on extremist groups, supply them with arguments and encourage them to wade into the mainstream helps distort domestic political issues, creates false choices for voters and increases acrimony in an effort to “unpick” the fabric of political unity. Adding to the disorder is the fact that Western nations themselves are going through a period of real political and economic change in areas such as free trade and inequality.
Trump dominates online
The ability of Trump’s backers to generate social media publicity for him has helped elevate the candidate far above his Republican rivals. And pro-Trump and pro-Putin efforts do overlap. The constant cross-referencing between Dugin’s material and websites and social media within the US reinforces a kind of content feedback loop. In one example, anonymous pro-Russia Twitter account holder @Ricky_Vaughn99, who has been acknowledged as one of the most influential tweeters for Trump, was interviewed on Radix Journal, edited by racist “alt-right” figure Richard Spencer, which itself hosts numerous articles by and about Dugin. The Ricky Vaughn 99 account has even retweeted videos in Russian. (He didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Spencer himself tried to participate in a conference in Hungary in which Dugin was scheduled to appear. The racist figures reciprocate affection for Russia too. It’s like one big happy family generating social media buzz for Trump, Dugin and the cause of white identity.
Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, journalists, activists and the public have commented on the strange affinity between racist groups and Trump. Within the domain of US political reporting, this is explained as a surge of racists backing Trump.
Looked at through the prism of international politics, though, the US is just another country in which Russia is building ties with fringe groups in an effort to sway the domestic political discussion and gain leverage. The use of “patriot” bloggers in an effort to change politics goes back nearly a decade, at least to 2007, when pro-Kremlin bloggers successfully overwhelmed news of an opposition rally in Russia simply by crowding out posts supporting the event with coverage of a smaller pro-Kremlin march. Pro-Kremlin forces also used bots on Twitter to do something similar during a contested parliamentary election in 2011. Lately, however, Russia’s efforts have been international in nature, too: during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, patriotic Russian trolls weighed in, trying to boost the chances of Scotland breaking away from Britain.
In Europe, France’s far-right National Front actually received a loan from Russia. Far-right Hungarian party Jobbik regularly promotes Russian views of regional politics. Even the left-leaning Spanish populist party Podemos is considered close to Russia. So are northern separatists in Italy, the Lega Nord. Many of the links are online. US-based George Washington University researcher on anti-government extremism J.J. MacNab tweeted: “The Russians are by far the largest agitator of right-wing, anti-government anger in the US. By a landslide.”
Why is Russia doing this?
Decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, ideas of democracy, liberal freedom and limits on state power constitute (in the eyes of Dugin, Putin and their circle) an “information war” against Russia. For them, these Western ideas are part of the same plot that helped spur the so-called “colour revolutions” in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, rather than seeing them as events originating in those countries. In the eyes of Russia’s leaders, Western-linked NGOs are part of this hostile activity. According to this vision, Russia is fighting fire with fire by launching its own 21st-century information war strategy against the West.
In addition to Dugin, another major thinker in this area is Russian political scientist Igor Panarin. In the 1990s Panarin predicted the break-up of the US into six separate nations. Tellingly, that is what the Russians saw happening to the Soviet Union after the end of communism. So the Cold War concept was updated for the internet by Russian thinkers. “The irony is that while these Russian groups have a conspiracy theory of blaming the West for ‘fifth column’ activities inside Russia, they are trying to create the exact same inside EU states and now the US, by trying to infiltrate and influence elections from afar via social media,” says Singer.
Who can stop Russia?
As Jolanta Darczewska of the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies in 2014 wrote: “The geopolitical doctrine [of information warfare] treats information as a dangerous weapon: it is cheap, it is a universal weapon, it has unlimited range, it is easily accessible and permeates all state borders without restrictions.” During the Cold War, governments of the West typically amplified the broadcasting of fact-based journalism to counter Russia’s propaganda. The internet is proving a different animal, and the Western response is slow. Already, the volumes of disinformation are so great that in Europe, the EU has set-up a full-time disinformation debunking operation. But there are no authorities charged with rebutting a coordinated effort by Russia to sway Western domestic public opinion. Russia’s information war defies simple categorisation as a domestic, international, diplomatic or military problem for Western countries. Singer notes an effort to combat Russia’s efforts would touch on foreign relations, security, defence, intelligence and even financial regulations, as Dugin is under sanctions for his role in the Ukraine war. Little wonder then that, as Darczewska wrote in 2014, “Russia has a sense of impunity on information battlefields”.
From posts to polls
While success in shaping opinions online does not always translate to the polls – Scots did, after all, vote to stay in the United Kingdom, and Britons may yet vote to stay in the European Union – society is increasingly living online. If a Trump battalion of meme-armed supporters, some of whom are singing from a Russian hymnsheet, simply drown out Hillary Clinton online to the point she can’t communicate with the broad masses, it may be a real worry – not just for Clinton, but for the outlook for democracy circa 2016.
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Alexandr Dugin’s support for Trump filters through to extremists trying to influence the US election. Photo: Youtube