The Never-Ending Search for Foreign Subversives

Stop scapegoating Russia for America's divisions—and stop using Moscow as an excuse to call for restrictions on speech.



Four days after Donald Trump was elected president, thousands of people turned out for an anti-Trump march in New York City. That in itself isn't so surprising: There were a ton of anti-Trump protests last November, and New York hosted a bunch of them. But this one, BuzzFeed reports, had been called by BlackMatters, a "Russia-linked" group, and therefore it feeds easily into a broader narrative about alien forces subverting American politics.

If this protest was indeed arranged by Russian agents, that's a notable story. But that broader narrative is overblown and dangerous—a paranoid tale that scapegoats Russia for America's domestic divisions, and that is already being used to call for curbs on speech.

Two things are striking about this New York protest. The first is that it was directed against Donald Trump. That undercuts the notion, popular in some circles, that Trump and Putin are joined at the hip; it supports the idea, popular in other circles, that Moscow is less interested in backing any particular American faction than in accentuating America's divisions in general. (Whether it actually is accentuating those divisions is a separate question, which we'll get to below.)

The other striking thing about the march is that it wasn't a flop. The last time I wrote about one of these "Russia-linked" protests, the event drew approximately four people. Other demonstrations have been either equally miniscule or just slightly larger; there's no sign that they were any bigger than the protests organized by homegrown supporters of the same causes. (Impressed that a "few dozen" people may have gone to a Russia-linked rally for Texas secession? Lone Star separatists were able to attract a "few hundred" to an event in the '90s, when Moscow was Washington's pal and presumably wasn't promoting Texit.) So getting thousands to show up at an anti-Trump protest is far better than these troll accounts usually did.

But note how they did it: They scheduled it amid a bunch of other protests for the same cause. On top of that, they did it under a name—"BlackMatters"—that's easy to mistake for the name of another group. So a cheap Russian knockoff of Black Lives Matter was able to draw people to a cheap Russian knockoff of an anti-Trump protest, held a month the same city was seeing copious anti-Trump protest anyway. This is what "success" looked like: not opening or even widening a division in American society, but camouflaging yourself as a cause that people already supported. They found a crowd and rushed to stand in front of it.

It is certainly possible that we'll later learn Moscow was able to exploit this rally in some unsavory way. (For all I know it was filled with spies trying to recruit sources—though of course, they could do that at any other rally too.) But based on what we know now, this doesn't look like successful subversion; it looks like successful mimicry.

Yet so many reactions to stories like this reverse cause and effect, blaming Russia for tensions that in fact grew organically in the United States. The more careful pundits will throw in a to-be-sure statement mentioning that Americans were already fighting each other before any foreign trolls came along, but they'll still insinuate that anyone who dissents from the centrist consensus is a Kremlin dupe. Here's Tim Morris of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, for example:

If Russia's objective was to sow discord, doubt, and disruption into the 2016 U.S. elections, undermine our democratic system, and inflame political differences, you really have to hand it to them. Mission accomplished….

Not that the Russians should get all the credit, of course. Americans have been doing our part with gerrymandered political districts, polarized media, and confirmation bias biospheres. All the Russians had to do was to direct a few robots and release a few trolls into our social media air ducts to make us all go a little crazier.

He doesn't offer any evidence that a substantial number of people became "a little crazier" because of those bots and trolls, let alone that we "all" did. As is often the case when people write about media effects, he finds it sufficient to mention the number of Americans who may have been exposed to the messages he dislikes, as though that tells you anything about how many actually absorbed the messages and how they reacted to them.

Morris also mentions this nugget from this week's Senate hearings on Russian meddling in U.S. politics:

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D., Vt., noted there are still many pages on Facebook that appear similar to those created by the [Russian] Internet Research Agency.

Are those pages "similar" because they're Russian-run too, or are they "similar" because they're the sort of stuff the trolls have been imitating? Who knows? Once you've identified a foreign enemy and declared that it's trying to sow division—in the words of Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), that it's trying "to take a crack in our society and turn it into a chasm"—then you've identified any divisive speech as something that serves the foreign conspirators' ends. If you're not their agent, you're their dupe.

As in past panics over foreign propaganda, from the 1790s onward, these fears have culminated in calls for controls on expression. Tim Wu had an Orwellian op-ed in The New York Times last week that redefined certain forms of speech—"false stories," "foreign propaganda"—as forms of censorship, so that suppressing them is really "reinvigorating the First Amendment." At this week's hearings, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) warned of "a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to…sow conflict and discontent all over this country," and then she told Facebook, Google, and Twitter: "You created these platforms, and now they're being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will." (Remember when the big fear was that tech companies would set up "walled gardens"? Now the big goal is to get those walled gardens to enforce the government's preferences. For all the anti–Silicon Valley rhetoric floating around these days, the momentum right now is toward a system where Facebook is Washington's partner, policing speech to prove that it's "responsible.")

If you said a year ago that the Trump era would see officials invoking alleged foreign conspiracies to push for new controls on speech, a lot of people would have nodded their heads. But I don't think they would have imagined Democrats leading the charge.