Russia’s online propaganda is just the latest incarnation of its old tactics

Russia’s online propaganda is just the latest incarnation of its old tactics
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Facing the unremitting backlash against the NFL national anthem protests, leftist commentators have invoked the 1960s and the reputed “golden age” of American civil disobedience. They remind us that, at the time of the demonstrations, the vast majority of Americans wrongly perceived the “lunch counter sit-ins” and other related protests as counterproductive to the Civil Rights Movement. They suggest that history will similarly vindicate the NFL kneelers against the uninformed and outraged masses and that the protestors and their de facto leader, Colin Kaepernick, will one day be perceived as their generation’s equivalent of Martin Luther King and his marchers. 

The argument, of course, relies on an absurd supposition: because one unpopular protest was actually appropriate and just, all unpopular protests are appropriate and just. This egregious heuristic failure is, ironically, a clear case of stereotyping, the precursor to racial prejudice — the very thing the protesters claim to oppose.

The argument is a typical symptom of an almost uniquely liberal disease: the idea that history itself is on an inexorable — albeit fitful — trajectory toward progress. As David A. Graham and others have noted, this notion leads to the deranged belief that the pursuit of progressive policies necessarily places individuals on “the right side of history” and implies that they have an innate ability to predict how historians will ultimately judge their and others’ actions. If Democrats can be the purported “party of science,” why can’t they be the “party of history” as well?

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This isn’t to dismiss the usefulness of historical analysis or how it can inform modern day events and opinions. Rather, it’s to remind us to be careful. As the late University of Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once said: “[history] is a harlot and hireling, and for this reason she best serves those who suspect her most.” Allowing for the proper passage of time is our only hope to objectively study the past and turn history into our hireling. The suggestion that one group has monopolized historical truth demonstrates the intrinsic failure to understand it.

 

So how do we make a more objective assessment of our policies and opinions in real-time? We outsource it to our enemies, actually. They, of course, are no more or less unbiased than America’s bickering hordes on the right and left. But their self-interest drives them to find our greatest weaknesses and contradictions, and devise ways to exploit them. 

Take the Soviet Union’s response to the aforementioned Civil Rights movement as an example. As reported in 1963 by Thomas Hughes, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research, the Soviets claimed that African Americans’ lack of equal rights demonstrated that “racism is inevitable in the capitalist system and can only be eradicated along with capitalism itself.” More importantly, the U.S.’s harmful policies toward its own minority populations undermined its claim to global leadership and fair treatment of “colored peoples throughout the world.” 

Obviously, American capitalism won the Cold War and relegated the Soviets and their Marxist-Leninist ideology to “the dustbin of history.” But the 1960s-era Soviets undoubtedly had a point: the inequitable treatment of minorities represented a stain on our record and a gross violation of our foundational ideals.

Since its aim was “to economize the material costs of world dominance,” Soviet propaganda fought a war on three fronts. They wanted to do more than simply inflame domestic antipathy for their rival. They also sought to acquire sympathetic audiences abroad and foment disunity within the American market itself. Since they couldn’t control the flow of information or ideas in either place, their arguments were far more effective if they began with a kernel of truth.

Russian strongman and former KGB spy Vladimir Putin proclaimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century.” Similarly, many analysts have suggested that the Cold War’s revival is the raison d’etre for his repressive regime. But his propagandistic aims have been far more limited than the “global dominance” of his Soviet predecessors. They’ve been more about settling personal scores, undercutting geopolitical rivals, and currying internal support for a regime that presides over a stagnant economy and waning global influence.

In the Ukraine, Russia used a coordinated propaganda and cyber assault to support its “little green men” invasion of Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. They spread fake news on social media to sow confusion on the Ukrainian military’s front line. Once the Russian-backed rebels gained control, they rebranded the invasion as an internal struggle against Fascists and Nazis. Given Ukraine’s long and complicated World War II history and the survival of a small but unsavory far-right element within the country, this was a highly effective propaganda campaign based on a “kernel of truth.”

The Russians, of course, are now following a similar script in the United States. The interference with the 2016 presidential election, including the reported hack of the Democratic National Committee and targeting of 21 state election systems, has already achieved its intended effect — to foment doubt in the electoral process. The ongoing propaganda campaign waged through social media such as Facebook has been just as deleterious.

The Russians are not only spreading misinformation and divisive opinions, they are helping us do it ourselves. The NFL scandal is the perfect analogue. Russian trolls have taken both sides of the kneeling debate in order to further “gin up” the controversy and exacerbate the cultural divide within the United States.

Unlike their efforts in 1960s America and today’s Ukraine, the Russians aren’t amplifying tensions by harping on deep-seated and harmful ideologies like racism or fascism. Rather, they’re focusing on the tension itself. They’ve correctly identified that our abject refusal to compromise on anything related to the culture war is what most radically threatens our free and democratic values. Though unwilling to profess the same degree of certainty as those claiming to be on the “right side of history,” I’d be willing to bet that future historians will agree with our enemies.

Thus, U.S. cultural warriors — whether the president, NFL protesters, or some partisan hack on Twitter — should think long and hard about their respective demonstration’s contribution to our culture. If you’re performing the same work as a Russian bot, or if it achieves the same end, perhaps you shouldn’t do it.

Jack King is a national security consultant in Washington, D.C. and former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer. He is a graduate of the Cambridge Judge Business School.