When, exactly, does an unemployed coal miner in Lackawanna already wary of immigrants and the “mainstream media” become convinced that his interests are best served by voting for Trump over Clinton? Will a Pizza-gate ad purchased in rubles or an “Obama Created ISIS” meme cooked up in St. Petersburg be his tipping point, or just more proof that his original prejudices were correct all along?
At what point does a millennial democratic socialist in Detroit decide to skip voting altogether to put the finishing touches on her long-awaited Jacobin essay about the Zionist hegemony encoded in Seinfeld? Is it before or after spending 20 minutes reading Sputnik’s slippery summary of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Goldman Sachs executives? I doubt even Nate Silver would be able to tell you.
What the Russian security services have deftly done, and will continue to do, is tap into pre-existing pathologies in our society and encourage them, as an enabler might do to a drug addict or alcoholic. The extent to which active measures work is the extent to which our society is already falling apart, which is the only conclusion to draw from two recent Senate-commissioned studies into Russian disinformation and propaganda efforts online immediately before and after the last U.S. presidential election.
I doubt that anyone in the SVR or GRU can say with any certainty whether their interference operation made all the difference in the election. Plausible deniability thus worked in two ways. The first, of course, is the initial denial of having done anything nefarious at all. The second, and more effective, is to subtly hint that even if Putin’s spies and trolls bore a hole through American democracy, they still have no idea if their efforts made the crucial difference. So how can Americans possibly claim to know that it did? (Built into this deniability is the added benefit of seeing the U.S. media and political establishments frame nearly every domestic problem as a Russian-born conspiracy, thus giving Putin the kind of omnipotence none of his best-paid propagandists ever could.)
One can calculate forum posts on Facebook or bots on Twitter—which is to say, one can quantify the exposure of active measures—but one can’t really measure their impact without getting inside the head of everyone exposed to them, and then cross-referencing that group with voters in the three swing states who really did determine Trump’s presidency. Even then there is no way to be sure that Russia installed a real estate developer in the White House, because human psychology isn’t quite so amenable to big-data analysis.
Debunking disinformation is a worthwhile endeavor and those who follow this exercise closely can actually learn a lot about how a lie gets manufactured and disseminated by state actors. Bellingcat, Ukraine’s StopFake and RFE/RL’s Polygraph all pick apart Russian bullshit remarkably well. Unfortunately, those most susceptible to being fooled by that bullshit are either the least likely to check in with these outlets or most likely to believe the second-tier bullshit that these are organs of the CIA or MI6.
But herein lies the dilemma of our well-meaning civil society and government programs to combat disinformation. Neither Congress nor the State Department can tabulate American stupidity as if it were the census. (Though both will no doubt spend millions of dollars trying to do just that.) And what they can effectively do, such as hold social media platforms legally and financially accountable, will not eradicate the paranoid style in American politics. Texas secessionists who speak English like Borat will simply find new online homes from which to prey while also claiming that their being “censored” proves the merits of their original paranoia.
Our Eastern European and Baltic allies have long contended with disinformation as a national security threat and they long ago figured out that their strongest defense against it is media and historical literacy. They don’t pull the plug on Russian active measures; they educate their citizens to know them when they see them and roll their eyes.
Soviet occupation is still within living memory of most policymakers of these young democracies, which means they grew up having to divine the truth by the sheer idiocy or illogic of their own government’s lies. Seeing through a hostile foreign government’s lies is therefore second nature to them. No generation of Americans has ever had to mature under totalitarian conditions and no, not even the resistible reign of Donald Trump, comes close to approaching those, otherwise he wouldn’t be tweeting about “fake news arrest war,” he’d be issuing arrest warrants.
There’s another reason, though, that combating this challenge in America is more difficult today than it was during the Cold War.
Those in command in Russia now are not ideological fanatics, but something far worse. They’re cynics. They understand all too well how to cater to an almost limitless array of Western grievances, obsessions and conspiracy theories because for decades it was their job to do so as intelligence officers. The KGB used to spend months or years running agents who masqueraded under a panoply of different and mutually exclusive banners—West German Neo-Nazis, European separatists, Third World anti-colonialists, and religious terrorists—all in service to dividing and undermining the West. But the tools at their disposal were the telex, the brush-pass and the dead-drop. Now they slip into your DMs.
Even more constraining for the Soviets was the fact that the KGB was always subordinate to the almighty Party, itself (despite its supposed infallibility) given to changes in geopolitical mood as well as factional infighting and stifling bureaucracy. The KGB’s heirs, whom Putin has empowered as the new Russian nobility, have few of these constraints and even fewer reasons to be scrupulous in how they ply their trade. What took months or years now takes seconds to do on the internet, and the saturation effect of this technology more than makes up for the crudity of results. People who believe Obama is Kenyan and that 9/11 was an inside job aren’t going to quibble over the Photoshop quotient of a photograph showing John McCain meeting with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria.
But there’s another marked difference between then and now.
In the 20th century, those most amenable to the Kremlin line and Kremlin lie were those who genuinely believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat had been realized in the Soviet Union and wanted to import that dictatorship into their own country. If the Soviet Union had a fatal weakness it was that it actually had a positive raison d’être, from which followed the negative strategy of matching and defeating the West.
The messianic mission to spread Marxism-Leninism throughout the world had its ebbs and flows but was never fundamentally in question after 1917. Sympathizers and fellow travelers, as they were known, could thus be embarrassed whenever the stated revolutionary aim of Marxist-Leninism ran up against brute counterrevolutionary reality. The morning and evening editions of a French Communist newspaper memorably ran opposite editorials about Hitler on the day the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed. There’s an entire lexicon of short-hands and phrases that encompassed for so many intellectuals their disillusionment with this experiment with the future: “When was your Kronstadt?,” “The midnight of the century,” “Panzer-kommunismus,” “The God that failed,” “Fascism with a human face,” etc.
Today, there aren’t any gods left to fail and fascism has got an anonymous frog avatar. No one is seriously embarrassed by Russia failing to live up to its end of the bargain because it never really promised to do anything.
At the domestic level, Putin has couched his authoritarianism under mushy and meaningless slogans such as “managed democracy” and the “dictatorship of the law,” but not even he believes in them and no one really expects anyone else to either.
At the international level, he has allowed the country to become a kind of lighthouse for any political or cultural conceit that has been, at least until recently, adrift in the West. No ethos means a greater promiscuity in whom you make your friends and allies. It’s now not at all awkward or questionable to change your stripes, depending on your audience; it’s an advantage.
A social reactionary defends Putin because he stands for everything a reactionary would like: blood-and-soil nationalism, corporatist political economy, state-sponsored religion, media censorship, legalized homophobia and misogyny, a suspicion of foreigners (especially Muslims), a self-loathing about how suicidal the West has grown for lacking all of the above, plus a hatred of supranational institutions such as NATO and the European Union. Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orban, Nigel Farage, Richard Spencer and, to a degree, Donald Trump, all look east for cures to what ails them at home.
A hard leftist, meanwhile, finds plenty to admire in Putin because he sees Russia as a necessary counterweight to American, NATO and E.U. “imperialism.” The institutionalized bigotries, the mafia tactics and the rampant human rights abuses are either unfortunate side-effects as Russia struggles to be a resurgent world power, or outright exaggerations and inventions by liberals and neocons looking to maintain the unipolar world order.
Russian tanks, after all, have done in the Republic of Georgia, Ukraine and Syria what Soviet tanks used to do in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan—except they’ve done it better. These, in the view of the hard left, are not embarrassments but rather accomplishments. Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s chief strategist and spindoctor, is perhaps the best embodiment of this type of thinking and has conveniently told us so over the many years he spent as columnist for The Guardian. The Slovenian pop philosopher Slavoj Zizek, a self-styled Leninist who runs down migrants on Russian state propaganda outlets and thinks Trump is preferable to Clinton, is another.
Perhaps worst of all, however, is the only constituency meant to be a bulwark against Russian belligerence. The declining post-liberal consensus hasn’t been so terribly liberal when the material underpinnings of its consensus have been challenged. This is something Putin cleverly cottoned on to from the very beginning of his presidency, and exploits even now.
The centrist investment banker, the “progressive” tech CEO, and the Davos-frequenting Fortune 500 board member all like making money and do not particularly like asking where it came from. They may not defend the Kremlin per se, but they will usually oppose any efforts to sanction Russia, cut it out of the global economic system or restrict its billionaires’ access to offshore jurisdictions and American and European property markets. Things they secretly wish they could get away with in their own countries aren’t merely tolerated side-effects of Russia’s rough-and-tumble brand of capitalism, they’re in-built features of it. If only the authorities didn’t investigate but rewarded money-launderers at HSBC and Deutsche Bank the way the Kremlin does those at Sberbank or VTB.
All this is another way of saying that mobilizing democratic nations to fight the scourge of communism was easy compared with mobilizing them to fight the scourge of money. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg.