Circling the Lion's Den

Speaking the Kremlin’s language

by Andrei Soldatov

Donald Trump found himself in the White House for a number of very serious reasons. Most of these reasons have their origin in the United States, not abroad.

Yet the Kremlin did foster something—a particular kind of cynicism—in the political culture of the West in the 2016 election. To understand the impact Russia had on Trump’s success, we must look at this cynicism—where it comes from, how it works. After all, this cynicism was Putin’s gift to America.

First, though, let’s take a step back. For the past five years—since 2012—the Kremlin has been trying to find a way to place the Internet in Russia firmly under its own control. However, the mass protests of 2017, which were organized through social media and promoted on YouTube, were a clear sign of failure.

Other failures include the Kremlin’s attempts to control the Russian social network VK, or ‘Vkontakte,’ modelled after Facebook. Outside Russia, in Ukraine, the authorities in Kiev banned the network for fear it was being used by Kremlin propaganda outlets and intelligence services to influence public opinion and collect vital intelligence about users who were members of Ukraine’s military. Within Russia, Kremlin efforts to control VK were also unsuccessful. The Kremlin took control of the company that runs the network in 2014. While this resulted in a close cooperation between the company and the Russian secret services, VK was nonetheless instrumental in undermining Kremlin lies: When the war started in Ukraine, for example, Russian authorities denied Russian military involvement in the conflict. But dozens of profiles of Russian soldiers were discovered on Vkontakte. There, Russian soldiers boasted of their exploits in Ukraine, providing undeniable evidence of the Russian army’s presence in Eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, the Kremlin sent dozens of people to jail for posting comments online at VK. Rules were tightened. And yet, when the new wave of the mass protests hit the Russian towns in March of 2017, they were organized on VK. Despite the Kremlin’s efforts, the new generation of Russian protesters still uses the VK network to communicate.

So how did the Kremlin, which apparently understands so little about the nature of internet communications in its own domestic market, find a way to leverage communications platforms so effectively beyond its borders—that is to say, in the global world?

This is where the Kremlin’s cynicism comes in. These days, most international Kremlin offensives include an aggressive cyber component. The surprisingly successful hacking operation in the United States in 2016, is a prime example of how an injection of political cynicism abroad is far more effective than the Kremlin’s attempts at wholesale control, at home.

This cynicism is something that is all too familiar to Russian—and, before them, Soviet—citizens. The Soviet officials never trusted the people. They strongly believed that any Russian citizen at any moment could spontaneously go mad or get drunk, crush the equipment in the workplace or come into contact with a suspicious foreigner and expose state secrets. In short, the authorities wholeheartedly despised the people they governed. The people are unreliable and, thus, needed to be managed and kept under control. That’s why every Soviet citizen was limited in his or her travels and contacts and entangled in hundreds of instructions, all with the goal of preventing him or her from doing anything unauthorized. And there was always someone behind the next door—a party official or a KGB officer—to be asked for permission. The KGB believed in the same theory, but it went deeper. They were trained to think that every person was driven only by baser, inferior motives. When confronting Soviet dissidents, they looked for money, dirty family secrets, or madness, as they couldn’t accept for a second that someone could challenge the political system simply because they believed in their cause.

Putin is a product of this thinking. He doesn’t believe in mankind, nor does he believe in a benign society—the concept that people could voluntarily come together to do something for the common good. Those who tried to do something not directed by the government were either spies—paid agents of foreign hostile forces—or corrupt—i.e. paid agents of corporations. Any public debate with them about important issues was thus meaningless and dangerous. For Putin the serious business of governance should be left to professionals—his government officials.

This cynical message was spread inside Russia in late 2000s. It was used to attack the political opposition; it also targeted all sorts of activists, from environmentalists to feminists, using all the tools of propaganda available, from TV channels to social networks. Political or civic activity is a dirty business by definition, and nobody could be trusted—that was the main message. In the fragmented, confused post-Soviet society, it worked pretty well.

In 2016, this same message was widely propagated through social media in the United States. To a great extent, it was supported by the publication of leaks, most of which were the result of Russian hacking operations. Conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, supplied by “evidence” provided by WikiLeaks, were picked up by the pro-Kremlin English-speaking media like Sputnik, then promoted by trolls on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Of course, this alone was not the reason Trump won the presidency. Large sections of American society had already lost their trust in political institutions—and particularly in the media. The process had started long ago and is also apparent in many other Western countries. The Russian hackers and their bosses did not create a wholly new narrative in America, but instead sought to exploit the weaknesses that already existed.

This dark concept of total distrust was mostly spread via the Internet because it was what the Internet was built for—sharing ideas. Although the Internet is the most democratic means of communicating, it can be also be misused by governments and other groups.

Creating disruption on the Internet doesn’t need advanced technology—North Korea very quickly developed cyber capabilities strong enough to hack Sony servers, and for years ISIS outsmarted the West in online propaganda. Russia simply combined hacking with the public use of stolen information, and seized the moment—acting during the election period.

Does this mean we should accept the concept that the Internet carries more threats than benefits?

The creators of the Internet supported the opposite concept. Unlike Putin, they believed in people and built the global network under the assumption that it would be used for sharing something good. They may look naïve these days, but we have our modern linked-up technological world thanks to their concepts, not Putin’s. These days, we all speak the language of suspicion and threats posed by the Internet. In a way, in means we are speaking Kremlin’s language. Do we really need to?

Agentura.Ru, November 28, 2017.