Russian Head Games: American Citizens, American Puppets

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Analysis gave me great freedom of emotions and fantastic confidence. I felt I had served my time as a puppet.”~ Hedy Lamarr

There has been a steady drumbeat since before the 2016 Presidential elections in America that declared the Russian intent to undermine and subvert American democracy. That drumbeat has only become louder in the lead up to the newest Presidential electoral cycle in 2020.

While the old complaint of Russian cyber specialists striving to help the Trump campaign remains intact, there is also a new taint circling American media about how those same hacktivists are simultaneously striving to help the Bernie Sanders campaign.

For those who do not automatically understand why Russia wants to help both Trump and Sanders at the same time, the FBI comes out with the bold premise that its ultimate desire is to see America ‘tear itself apart.’ While interference in another country’s elections is never a good thing and rightfully should be exposed and remedied with extreme prejudice, there are some unique aspects to this so-called Russian interference that reveals to the world just how far the American people have fallen when it comes to something critically important to democratic elections in general: engagement, civil debate, and analytical subtlety. Ultimately, American society is spending too much time trying to preempt Russian head games while giving itself an unmitigated pass on correcting its own mental flaws, which are self-induced and self-promoted.

Somewhat unforgivably, people have forgotten how much accusations of ‘Russian interference’ in elections around the world have evolved since 2015. At first, the concern was that Russian cyber intelligence was good enough and craven enough to actually compromise the physical technology responsible for submitting, tallying, and counting votes. Thus, Russian interference was a decidedly direct and explicit variety. However, thousands of tests since 2016 have proven that while some attempts at hijacking the technology were indeed made, those attempts were easily thwarted and no actual evidence exists of Russian-sourced interference physically changing a single vote or single vote count. This should be important to analysts but for some reason it has largely been ignored in the West. Because this strategy was unviable, Russian strategy shifted to one of saturation and disinformation across the ubiquitous social media platforms that so dominate Western minds in the modern day.

Thus, the head games began: Russia could not truly interfere in elections by physically altering a vote, so it would mentally alter the Western voters. How? By sowing ‘social discord,’ by making people existentially angry by being exposed to fraudulent but ideologically provocative stories all over social media. It did not matter for whom these stories were, whether left or right, liberal or conservative, Trump or anti-Trump. What mattered was the emotion of it all: to make Americans so irascibly triggered by their respective trigger points, that any sense of having a rational, in-depth, high-quality, civil societal engagement of issues and candidates would be nigh impossible. This is in fact the formal definition Russian interference has devolved to. It is not so much interference in American elections as it is interference in the actual minds of Americans electors. Suddenly, we have woken up inside of a James Bond SPECTRE movie, where we are all helpless dupes unable to protect our brainwaves from the evil saturation of Russian misinformation. No less important a figure than the FBI’s assistant section chief of the Foreign Influence Task Force, David Porter, stated that Russia has no preference for anyone in particular when it comes to this electoral malfeasance. Rather, it is more interested in ‘information confrontation’ aimed at blurring fact from fiction, eroding American confidence in democratic institutions and driving wedges into society’s fracture lines.

Poppycock. Perhaps worse than poppycock: total, responsibility-dodging, hand-wringing, problem-deflecting, bullshit. In all of these lamentations the one critical aspect of self-judgment, of citizen responsibility for the processing of information, of voter duty to analyze information critically for veracity and power, is completely removed. Glossed over. Eliminated. If there is anything more disturbing about supposed Russian interference in the 2016 election and beyond it is the realization that it clearly identified the weaknesses of American society, of the American people themselves, and exploited them far better than all of the massively paid K-street lobbyists ever could dream of in Washington DC. Russia, who is always criticized by the Russian Studies specialists across America and Western Europe as being a fake democracy, whose leadership is always characterized as wantonly authoritarian and the farthest thing from true democratic principles, expertly waded into the social media platforms of the world’s greatest democracy and supposedly turned the minds of the voting electorate of the most mature and stable democratic voters inside out and upside down simply by posting fallacious memes and false stories. Suddenly, research was impossible. Suddenly, taking a few extra steps to investigate proclamations, to reach out to other citizens and rationally discuss the truthfulness of claims, was simply destroyed from within. When did the American electorate become such sheep, or worse, lemmings so easily led on the drive off a cliff? How is an intrinsically internal thinking process suddenly the exclusive blame of an external state government on the other side of the ocean? When did we give up Ms. Lamarr’s freedom and tie ourselves up back as puppets?

Disinformation, social media manipulation, and the saturation of fake news is not something to be ignored. But that attention should start reflecting the simple reality that all of it is easily defeated if a society can once again make as priorities critical reasoning, analytical thinking, balanced debate, open discussion, and engaged citizen civility. Right now, those are severely retarded in American society, if not outright dismissed as ‘too much work’ or ‘too tedious’ by far too many. And that retardation started far before there was any talk of Russian cyber trolls. If you want to defeat electoral interference via mind games, then you need to spend less time on the technical prowess that puts up stories like ‘the Killary list’ or ‘Epstein didn’t kill himself’ and focus more intensively on the people who willingly and enthusiastically consume those stories without any interest in vetting the details. The challenge is not about producing more agile ethical hackers with lightning quick defense skills. It is about reengaging society’s citizens to cut the very puppet strings with which they long ago restricted themselves.

#FreeThePuppets

Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston
Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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