23 Nov Russia, Cyberwar, and Post-Truth
A few days ago, the US Senate Intelligence Committee called top managers of Facebook, Twitter and Google to testify in relation to the use of their networks by foreign entities. “Are you aware of the massive use of your platforms by Russian agents in order to influence the general elections in France, in Germany, and now in the attempt to separate Catalonia from Spain?” The senators were referring to the recent massive spread of biased news and false pictures on social networks: Articles sent by media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, and subsequently forwarded by thousands of automated accounts and by influencers like Julian Assange, as well as by associates of the Chavist Venezuelan movement. And while such online manipulation came to compare Spain’s political system with Franco’s regime, Vladimir Putin sent out a more diplomatic public message, although finally spiced up by the Balkan comparison: “You should have thought about it twice before supporting Kosovo,” he said in reference to “the big brother” – the US – and the great majority of European nations, and thus portraying the West as his direct antagonist.
These perfectly organized attacks share the spirit of punctual and exceptional operations launched by some Western governments in the past which, once unmasked by the free press within their open political systems, have subsequently been rejected by public opinion and designated as post-truth. It is the same post-truth operative that we are suffering again now, but corrected and increased from Moscow. Unsurprisingly, it is now Russia, led by a former KGB agent, the one leading a permanent cyber-campaign with the aim of distorting reality for its own benefit. If during the times of the Soviet Union the essential organ for government propaganda was “Pravda” – which ironically means “truth” in Russian – now Moscow resumes its old system of mass intoxication, although now applying it to world citizens, and using the technological platforms created by its major political and ideological competitor. A Russia far behind the economic and military capabilities of the West, but which does not hesitate to use any resources available to show that it knows how to play power games, while claiming to be feared and respected.
With these attacks, Russia proves it wants a chaotic and unstable West. A weak rival would allow it to try to gain from future negotiations, from the sanctions applied after its annexation of Crimea, to its influence in the Middle East or its obsession with the Baltic nations. In addition, an increasingly internally divided West comes to show Russian citizens that other countries also suffer from similar sociopolitical difficulties, and so it legitimizes Russia’s government internally. This is what Russia intends through its meddling in Catalonia, and also when it supports Le Pen in France, AfD in Germany, Brexit in the United Kingdom, or Trump in the United States. Its goal is to divide other nations and, in order to achieve it, it supports Donald Trump for president, but also backs anti-Trump demonstrations once he has been elected for office.
In order to apply this strategy more efficiently, Russia has found local associates in Western countries. In the United States, Steven Bannon’s Breitbart was heavily promoted by Russian social media accounts during the last presidential campaign, and has also recently collaborated in conveying the idea that Catalonia is under siege by the government of Spain. Donald Trump Jr. looked forward to meeting an alleged Russian government’s lawyer in order to obtain damaging information about Hillary Clinton in 2016 – “I love it” – and received tips during the campaign from Julian Assange’s Wikileaks. Borja Lasheras and Nicolás de Pedro explain in a report by the Atlantic Council that the Kremlin has also found potential partners in Spain in order to develop its strategy. The extreme left is fond of Russia as a bulwark against Western imperialism and the primacy of the market, while on the far right, minority political parties and associations admire Putin’s expansionism, ethnic-based identitarianism, and the defense of the sovereignty of the nation-state against Western internationalism.
The European Union must be aware of the enormous challenge it now faces. Collaboration among police units and intelligence agencies could help stop and expose these attacks. Public knowledge of this siege would help mitigate the spread of its harmful message. And in the longer term, governments should work towards reducing social inequality in order to minimize the breeding ground of destructive populism, while trying to raise educational and cultural levels to further shield the West from the marginal but growing threat of the speech of fear and hate.
Manuel López-Linares is author of Pax Americana.
SOURCE: Expansión -print edition-. Spain’s leading business newspaper. On November, 23, 2017.