Why the Russia Story is Significant

Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, you’ve probably noticed the media attention devoted to his possible (is it confirmed now? I’ve lost track!) collusion with Russia during the campaign, and Russia’s efforts to swing public opinion in his favor ahead of the election. Chances are you also know that Trump strongly dislikes it. In large part, this antipathy probably stems from a sense that the focus on Russian interference tarnishes his (electoral college) victory. But there are other implications, such as that Trump is in some sense a puppet of Putin. Critics of Trump have told the story in various ways, emphasizing different elements to make several distinct points. Trump himself has tried to bat away the story by calling it “fake news,” but as the Mueller investigation continues, it won’t go away.

While most left-wing critics of Trump have been among the most vocal in sounding the alarm on Russian influence, some on the left have criticized the media’s focus on this topic. An internal debate among writers for The Nation, a left-wing magazine, has taken place about their coverage of the Russia story. I’ve heard the case that focus on the Trump-Russia connection, and the broader story about Russia’s use of propaganda to influence global public opinion, is a distraction from Trump’s devastating policies. The American media undoubtedly prefers an exciting story about Russian influence to dry articles about policy, but the Russia story is much more than a distraction. Left commentators who entirely dismiss this multifaceted story are either missing or willfully ignorant of some of its most important aspects.

I’ll start with one of the most often mentioned points: Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin says a lot about the kind of leader he is. Praise for authoritarian leaders elsewhere means that Trump will continue to stretch the limits of what an American president can say and do. And of course if there are tangible ties between Trump and the Russian state, that’s deeply concerning. Less discussed are the effects of Russia’s propaganda.

Russia-supported propaganda bolsters the racist right. A Politico Magazine story about a dashboard monitoring Russia-backed Twitter accounts notes that “[f]or three consecutive days in August, the most retweeted Russia Today stories recorded by the dashboard involved scaremongering videos appearing to show refugees swarming into Spain, as well as a story alleging that the German government is suppressing news of refugee crimes.” The alt-right’s authoritarian ideology meshes well with Putin’s attack on the usefulness and efficacy of democracy. Russian state media has also offered support for racist movements throughout Europe, such as the French National Front.

Crucially, Russia’s misinformation supports its geopolitical agenda. Russian government news outlets and Russia-promoted content attempts to mold opinion on international issues, especially Syria and Ukraine, in line with its interests. According to the Politico Magazine piece,

One of the most prevalent themes pushed by RIOT [Russian Influence Operations on Twitter] is the promotion of conspiracy theories that muddy the waters regarding any wrongdoing by Russia or its allies, particularly the Syrian regime. This material is significantly promoted over social media, with occasional help from the attributed outlets. Examples over the past year include conspiracy theories seeking to discredit Bana al-Abed, a young girl in Syria who tweeted about the civil war with assistance from her mother, and reports of chemical attacks by the Syria regime

Some writers on the left have participated in this conspiracy commentary. It is unclear whether there is a connection between a group of left-wing pro-Assad bloggers and Russian state media, but there clearly is a symbiosis. Russian state media and commentators from other platforms are spreading lies in real time, with the practical effect of discouraging international action to protect civilians under attack by the Syrian and Russian governments. The consequence of a post-truth, “alternative facts” politics is that the global public is cross-pressured between reading calls for solidarity from survivors of war crimes and seeing propaganda outlets deny that the crimes ever happened.  Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes about denialism and “moral atrophy” here.

In the U.S., the biggest counter to propaganda is political education and news literacy. If Russia wishes to discredit democracy, the U.S. needs to respond by deepening democracy and making it more participatory and inclusive. And the left needs to develop an internationalism that emphasizes solidarity with people, not states, to flip Sam Hamad’s summary of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance.

The Russia story, and Russian propaganda, should be taken seriously. While Trump-Russia ties are being investigated, we should recommit to seeking the truth and educate each other on how to ignore propaganda.

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