After months of speculation and investigation, the US government has formally indicted 13 Russians with “election meddling”. While these indictments did not include suspected charges of Trump’s collusion, they did seem to validate ideas that Russia was guilty of directly undermining American democracy. According to one report,
A 37-page indictment produced by the team of Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the investigation, gives the fullest ever account of alleged Russian interference. It describes how Russian agents created hundreds of social media accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to influence the election.
Importantly, even if all these allegations are true, there is little credible evidence that the Russian efforts substantially impacted the election results. Critics also rightly point out that the US is certainly no stranger to interfering in foreign elections. There are reasons to be wary of these indictments as part of a misguided “witch hunt” meant to reinforce a threatened US military, political, and economic status quo.
Yet this also represents a dramatic progressive possibility for reinvigorating democracy internationally. Regardless of any double standard, those who care about democracy should absolutely be outraged and troubled by these revelations. However, they should also see them as a profound opportunity to bring to justice elites across the world who are destroying democracy from within and without.
From the very beginning, it was unclear the degree that these charges of Russian interference were actually credible or politically motivated. The damning DNC hack was soon revealed to be just as plausibly an internal leak. Calls to impeach Trump and his allies for treasonous collusion are not holding up to serious scrutiny – at least not yet. These indictments, therefore, are an unambiguous declaration by the US Government that Russia, at more precisely a number of Russians, are guilty of interfering with the integrity of US democracy.
Nevertheless, while there is certainly blood in the political waters, they remain as muddy as ever. Even if there is evidence that Russia sought to manipulate the elections in favor of Trump, does that alter the ways they are being used as a foreign “bogeyman” to distract from the deeper problems eating away at American democracy? And precisely just how much impact did their efforts have on the actual election results?
While systematically ignored within much of the mainstream media, there is a growing attempt to highlight that the US involvement in similarly manipulating other country’s democracies. The academic Dov Levin found that there were between 1946 and 2000 there 117 “partisan electoral interventions” – 70% of which were instigated by the US. This does not even take into account the many times they simply overthrew governments that did not align with their national and corporate interests. As one recent headline proclaimed, “Americans can spot election meddling because they’ve been doing it for years.”
There are serious concerns, therefore, that while public concerns over Russian interference are true, they are not the whole story. They serve to hide the larger global issue of a democracy under attack by powerful nations and economic elites. The indictment targets our red fear while leaving many others who are equally guilty both at home and abroad free of charge.
Seeing Only Red
The popular outcry against Russia has highlighted how vulnerable modern democracies are to external interference – especially linked to new technologies. Lurid tales of internet bots and hacking into election machines paint a vivid picture of evil foreign agents destroying our democratic institutions from the inside out. Russia has become a symbol for deep seated anxieties that everything we hear and everything we do is being manipulated and directed for evil purposes. While greater awareness of these threats are obviously welcome and urgent, currently the attention is being paid only to danger posed by Russia. The broader international context and power struggles giving rise to these undemocratic practices are being completely lost in a tide of anti-Russian anger. These reports simultaneously wake us up to the perils faced by contemporary democracy, while blinding us to its full terrifying extent.
Significantly, these tactics are by no means confined only to Russia. Indeed in 2011 it was reported that the US military was
developing software that will let it secretly manipulate social media sites by using fake online personas to influence internet conversations and spread pro-American propaganda.
This is part of the global rise of a “weaponized AI propaganda machine”. It is now common for countries to seek to assert their international clout by taking advantage of these “automated propaganda machines” in order to stealthily shape the thinking of their own and foreign populations.
We are in the midst, thus, of an anti-democratic digital arms race. And it is extends far beyond governments. It also includes and is many ways driven by massive private companies with their own political agenda. Perhaps the most notorious and influential of these - Cambridge Analytica – uses sophisticated algorithms and big data to personalize its manipulation of individual users in order to support right wing causes such as the election of Trump and Brexit.
Further, these hi-tech strategies are complementing quite traditional greater power imperialism. Russia does not want to undermine the US because they are simply evil and Putin hates democracy. It is rather part of an international strategy to undermine US hegemony in the Middle East (particularly Syria) and Eastern Europe (particularly the Ukraine). It was these very same considerations that led the US to interfere in the 2012 Russian election (and its pivotal 1996 election) as well as in the (year) Ukrainian elections. When all we see is red, it is thus easy for us to miss the blood on our own leader’s hands.
A Global Struggle to Save Democracy
Two decades after the first one thankfully ended the US and Russia are on the verge of starting a new Cold War. The indictments are simply the latest broadside in demonizing Russia while ignoring the wider international threat to democracy. In the name of preserving our democratic institutions, US citizens are willingly closing their eyes to the full global scope of this problem – one in which it is not only a victim but also a perpetrator.
Recent history reveals the danger of allowing American elites to present themselves as protectors of democracy – as the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi casualties can attest. It is one of the greatest historical ironies of our time, that Hillary Clinton – who as Secretary of State contributed to the manipulation of democratic processes in Honduras and Haiti for the interests of US corporations as well was the chief architect of a disastrous military backed regime change in Libya – now decries foreign powers interfering in elections. It is also telling how quickly those in the political mainstream are using Russian actions to undermine actual progressive grassroots movements to reinvigorate democracy from their corrupt stranglehold.
Yet to give into cynicism or simply critique the hypocrisy of US elites is also utterly self-defeating. This should be the opening of a new popular front in the struggle for democracy. One in which we demand that foreign leaders and executives face justice for undermining democracies worldwide. In which the enemy is not an evil national bogeyman but a global oligarchy. If Russians can be rightfully indicted for actively manipulating politics, so to can others leaders including our own.
It is tempting to accept the easy morality tale of good Americans verse bad Russians, or a saintly West verse a menacing East. Nevertheless, there is a more accurate and important narrative that must be allowed to be heard – one with equally compelling heroes and villains. This should be the initial salvo in internationalist struggle to save all our democracies from the clutches of scheming global elites.