Russia

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.

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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.

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  1. You have to admit, this is the first election where everything was so polarized!

    1. Why search for foreign subversives when we haven’t yet taken adequate measures to silence the ones lurking in our universities? For Christ’s sake, DO SOMETHING to keep students from reading the material presented on websites like this:

      https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

  2. I agree with the sub-head.

    But … why the graphic?

    I mean, isn’t the whole point that there isn’t actually a large Russian-fronted movement in the United States?

    The French Popular Front was actually a Soviet front in every meaningful sense, though – the poster is quite correct about that.

    (I mean, it was only created following a COMINTERN directive, full of Communists [and none of the major Communist parties in Europe were not run by Moscow one way or another, were they?] – and the rest of them mostly members of groups like the SFIO, which was equally a product of the COMINTERN and Moscow.

    No reason to call them Soviet stooges, amirite?)

    1. But … why the graphic?

      Ironic commentary + cool picture = good blog art


  3. 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.

    Actually I’m pretty sure most of us thought at the time that Democrats would indeed lead the charge since historically they’ve been charging along the same path for almost 120 years now, so who are we talking about here exactly? Tony, perhaps?

  4. What about the disclosure that Russia was hacking into and targeting thousands of prominent Americans, businesses and institutions for future influence campaigns? It seems like Reason is beating a dead horse on the relative insignificance of the trolling part of the Russian interference and giving less attention to the hacking and release of compromising information which was how Russia had the most impact on the election. Then consider that Donald Trump literally congratulated the Russians for hacking his enemies and tried to reward Putin by lifting sanctions and then maybe you can understand why I am so freaked by it all. Our own President and his appointees seem to have made common cause with the hackers and Putin. Then consider how Putin, Trump, and so many Republicans were all denying that anything was even happening while the interference was so clearly taking place. It’s enough to piss a motherfucker off.

    1. Trump refuses to criticize Putin and is just a loud mouth idiot. He refuses to criticize anybody who says nice things about him. If BLM started telling Trump he was awesome, he’d probably sign a reparations bill.

      His appointees, on the other hand, have absolutely not been pro-Putin. This administration’s actions, not Trump’s words, have been arguably more confrontational towards Russia than Obama was for his entire presidency.


    2. Our own President and his appointees seem to have made common cause with the hackers and Putin.

      So I take it you were shitting bricks when Obama had Hillary push that big red reset button on relations then. You just knew at the time they were going to fuck us over with cheap facebook graphics while hacking the DNC.


      …giving less attention to the hacking and release of compromising information which was how Russia had the most impact on the election.

      So the release of ostensibly truthful information regarding the DNC instantly becomes bad when it’s done by Russians?


      What about the disclosure that Russia was hacking into and targeting thousands of prominent Americans, businesses and institutions for future influence campaigns?

      What are you talking about? Which hacks, what Americans?


      Then consider that Donald Trump literally congratulated the Russians for hacking his enemies and tried to reward Putin by lifting sanctions and then maybe you can understand why I am so freaked by it all.

      Because the first thing someone who has orchestrated a massive crime with the death penalty as punishment does is go and brag about the crime on Twitter? Do you honestly think Donald is that stupid? I mean, honestly, no one is that stupid are they?

    3. “…maybe you can understand why I am so freaked by it all.”

      You must be remarkably naive, then. To me, it seems completely par for the course coming from either shitty side of the disgusting, hypocritical, power-obsessed two-party system.

      Now if I were to ever witness politician who actually behaved with a modicum of honesty and ethics — THAT would completely freak me out. I’d also immediately start to worry about his or her safety, as an assassination would no doubt be imminent.

    4. Have you read “The Darkening Web” by Alexander Klimburg? Or followed Andy Greenberg’s coverage on Wired?

      Good places to start to learn more about Russia and the cyber-world.

    5. “”What about the disclosure that Russia was hacking into and targeting thousands of prominent Americans, businesses and institutions for future influence campaigns?””

      I don’t recall that.

      I do recall a disclosure that Russia was attempting to hack into and targeted thousands…
      To say “hacking into” you are saying it was all successful. I don’t recall anything says their success was so widespread.

      I also don’t recall it being labeled as an “influence campaigns”.

    6. I am so freaked by it all

      Don’t worry, I’m sure your mommy will be home to give you a juice box and a binky, change your diaper, and put you down for your nap before dinner.

    7. What about the disclosure that Russia was hacking into and targeting thousands of prominent Americans, businesses and institutions for future influence campaigns?

      The ‘disclosure’ was Wikileaks dumping a crapload of DNC info onto the internet

      The DNC, and their minions in the media, made up the idea that the Russians were behind it–and they have kept up that drumbeat ever since.

      The ‘actual meddling’ we’ve been able to really show Russian ‘involvement’ in is pretty tame and consists of ham-handed attempts to influence us through public propaganda.

  5. When would-be Hillary voters are swayed to vote Trump based on powerful, slick ads on instagram, I think blowing off Russia’s influence is a little glib.

    1. Anyone dumb enough to be swayed by slick ads on Instagram should lose their right to vote or have it counted for the other guy.

      Anyone dumb enough to report that they voted for the other guy because of slick ads on Instagram is too dumb to be relied upon to give an accurate response to the question.

      Now Snap Chat’s a different story. The Russians better not be messing with that one.

      1. “Anyone dumb enough to report that they voted for the other guy because of slick ads on Instagram is too dumb to be relied upon to give an accurate response to the question.”

        True. Reminds me of the Florida voters in 2000 who demanded an election do-over by claiming that they “meant” to vote for Gore but voted for Buchanan “by mistake.”

        1. This is what happens when voting hours crossover with early bird specials.

          I remember Justice Rehnquist taking FL voters to task in his Bush V Gore opinion regarding the inability to follow the posted written instructions.

  6. I like how the media wants to build a wall around our social networking platforms to keep Russians out.

    1. Some, I assume, are good people.

  7. At first glance I thought that was a mid-century poster for a ski resort.

  8. “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.”)

    Yes, The feds are trying to literally outsource censorship, and it’s already working.

  9. Why search for foreign subversives when we haven’t yet taken adequate measures to silence the ones lurking in our universities? For Christ’s sake, DO SOMETHING to keep “opinions” like this from being read:

    http://forward.com/opinion/385…..s-scholar/

  10. The more careful pundits will throw in a to-be-sure statement

    Light the Robbie signal!

  11. “The Russians” spent a whopping $1.93 on the Facebook ad about the New York City rally. Please note this is the first time anyone anywhere has convinced someone somewhere to do something for less than $2 worth of advertising.

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