Last week the feds accused a Russian woman named Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova of what CNN is calling a "conspiracy to hurt American democracy." So I read the criminal complaint, and I found that her activities looked a lot like…well, American democracy. As I write this morning over at The Atlantic,
The criminal complaint against Khusyaynova claims that she and her co-conspirators aimed "to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system" by "creating social and political polarization." To that end, it says, they adopted false online identities and used them to "inflame passions on a wide variety of topics, including immigration, gun control and the Second Amendment, the Confederate flag, race relations, LGBT issues, the Women's March, and the NFL national anthem debate."
In other words, they mimicked a bunch of all-American politicians and pundits, many of whom spend the home stretch of every election trying to polarize us and inflame our passions, often by invoking those very issues. And then the Russians added a little more shouting to the din….
Over the past two years, there's been a steady drumbeat of reports about Russians spreading fake news, creating fake social-media accounts, and forming fake groups that try to organize real demonstrations on U.S. soil. The reporters frequently add the appropriate caveats and cautions, but even then their stories are often framed in ways that scapegoat Moscow for America's domestic political divides. (When The New York Times runs a headline like "How Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics," note how it puts the Russians, not the raging Americans, in the driver's seat.) This country has a long history of blaming its problems on alien infections, and it's easy to insert these Facebook pod-people into that old legend.
So it surely matters that these stories tend to feature far more examples of Russians imitating Americans than influencing Americans.
To read the whole argument, go here. And if you'd like to read the Khusyaynova complaint too, it's here. Its most meta moment comes when one of the Russian trolls, wearing the mask of an American liberal, accuses Moscow of interfering with our elections: "Still think this Russia thing is a hoax and a witch hunt? Because a lot of witches just got indicted."