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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 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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Americas

Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer

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When Sarah Huckabee Sanders showed up on the scene as White House Press Secretary, the reaction was that of relief. Finally — someone civil, normal, friendly. Jen Psaki’s entry this year was something similar. People were ready for someone well-spoken, well-mannered, even friendly as a much welcome change from the string of liars, brutes or simply disoriented people that the Trump Administration seemed to be lining up the press and communications team with on a rolling basis. After all, if the face of the White House couldn’t keep it together for at least five minutes in public, what did that say about the overall state of the White House behind the scenes?

But Psaki’s style is not what the American media and public perceive it to be. Her style is almost undetectable to the general American public to the point that it could look friendly and honest to the untrained eye or ear. Diplomatic or international organization circles are perhaps better suited to catch what’s behind the general mannerism. Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer, but a Sean Spicer nevertheless. I actually think she will do much better than him in Dancing With The Stars. No, in fact, she will be fabulous at Dancing With The Stars once she gets replaced as White House Press Secretary.

So let’s take a closer look. I think what remains undetected by the general American media is veiled aggression and can easily pass as friendliness. Psaki recently asked a reporter who was inquiring about the Covid statistics at the White House why the reporter needed that information because Psaki simply didn’t have that. Behind the brisk tone was another undertone: the White House can’t be questioned, we are off limits. But it is not and that’s the point. 

Earlier, right at the beginning in January, Psaki initially gave a pass to a member of her team when the Politico stunner reporter story broke out. The reporter was questioning conflict of interest matters, while the White House “stud” was convinced it was because he just didn’t chose her, cursing her and threatening her. Psaki sent him on holidays. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

Psaki has a level of aggression that’s above average, yet she comes across as one of the most measured and reasonable White House Press Secretaries of the decade. And that’s under pressure. But being able to mask that level of deflection is actually not good for the media because the media wants answers. Style shouldn’t (excuse the pun) trump answers. And being able to get away smoothly with it doesn’t actually serve the public well. Like that time she just walked away like it’s not a big deal. It’s the style of “as long as I say thank you or excuse me politely anything goes”. But it doesn’t. And the American public will need answers to some questions very soon. Psaki won’t be able to deliver that and it would be a shame to give her a pass just because of style.

I think it’s time that we start seeing Psaki as a veiled Sean Spicer. And that Dancing with the Stars show — I hope that will still run despite Covid.

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As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them

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Authors: Isabel Eliassen, Alianna Casas, Timothy S. Rich*

In recent years, individuals from Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) have been forced out of their home countries by extreme poverty and gang violence. While initial expectations were that the Lopez Obrador administration would be more welcoming to migrants, policies have slowly mirrored those of his predecessor, and do not seem to have deterred refugees. COVID-19 led to a decrease in refugees arriving in Mexico, and many shelters in Mexico closed or have limited capacity due to social distancing restrictions. Now that the COVID-19 situation has changed, arrivals could increase again to the levels seen in late 2018 or 2019, with overcrowded refugee centers lacking in medical care as potential grounds for serious COVID-19 outbreaks.

Mexico increasingly shares a similar view as the US on this migration issue, seeking ways to detain or deport migrants rather than supporting or protecting them. For instance, Mexico’s National Immigration Institute has been conducting raids on freight trains to find and detain migrants. Public opinion likely shapes these policies. In the US, support for allowing migrants into the country appeared to increase slightly from 2018 to 2019, but no significant majority emerges. Meanwhile, Mexican public opinion increasingly exhibits anti-immigrant sentiments, declining considerably since 2018, with a 2019 Washington Post poll showing that 55% supported deporting Central Americans rather than providing temporary residence and a 2019 El Financiero poll finding 63% supportive of closing to border to curb migration.

New Data Shows the Mexican Public Unwelcoming

To gauge Mexican public opinion on refugees, we conducted an original web survey June 24-26 via Qualtrics, using quota sampling. We asked 625 respondents to evaluate the statement “Mexico should accept refugees fleeing from Central America” on a five-point Likert scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree. For visual clarity, we combined disagree and agree categories in the figure below.

Overall, a plurality (43.84%) opposed accepting refugees, with less than a third (30.08%) supportive. Broken down by party affiliation, we see similar results, with the largest opposition from the main conservative party PAN (52.90%) and lowest in the ruling party MORENA (41.58%). Broken down by gender, we find women slightly more supportive compared to men (32.60% vs. 27.04%), consistent with findings elsewhere and perhaps acknowledgment that women and children historically comprise a disproportionate amount of refugees. Regression analysis again finds PAN supporters to be less supportive than other respondents, although this distinction declines once controlling for gender, age, education and income, of which only age corresponded with a statistically significant decline in support. It is common for older individuals to oppose immigration due to generational changes in attitude, so this finding is not unexpected.

We also asked the question “On a 1-10 scale, with 1 being very negative and 10 very positive, how do you feel about the following countries?” Among countries listed were the sources of the Central American refugees, the three Northern Triangle countries. All three received similar average scores (Guatemala: 4.33, Honduras: 4.05, El Salvador: 4.01), higher than Venezuela (3.25), but lower than the two other countries rated (US: 7.71, China: 7.26) Yet, even after controlling for general views of the Central American countries, we find the public generally unsupportive of accepting refugees.

How Should Mexico Address the Refugee Crisis?

Towards the end of the Obama administration, aid and other efforts directed at resolving the push factors for migration in Central America, including decreasing violence and limiting corruption, appeared to have some success at reducing migration north. President Trump’s policies largely did not improve the situation, and President Biden has begun to reverse those policies and re-implement measures successful under Obama.

As discussed in a meeting between the Lopez Obrador administration and US Vice President Kamala Harris, Mexico could adopt similar aid policies, and decreasing the flow of migrants may make the Mexican public respond more positively to accepting migrants. Lopez Obrador committed to increased economic cooperation with Central America days into his term, with pledges of aid as well, but these efforts remain underdeveloped. Threats to cut aid expedite deportations only risks worsening the refugee crisis, while doing little to improve public opinion.

Increasingly, the number of family units from Guatemala and Honduras seeking asylum in Mexico, or the United States, represents a mass exodus from Central America’s Northern Triangle to flee insecurity. Combating issues such as extreme poverty and violence in Central American countries producing the mass exodus of refugees could alleviate the impact of the refugee crisis on Mexico. By alleviating the impact of the refugee crisis, refugees seeking asylum will be able to navigate immigration processes easier thus decreasing tension surrounding the influx of refugees.

Likewise, identifying the public’s security and economic concerns surrounding refugees and crafting a response should reduce opposition. A spokesperson for Vice President Harris stated that border enforcement was on the agenda during meetings with the Lopez Obrador administration, but the Mexican foreign minister reportedly stated that border security was not to be addressed at the meeting. Other than deporting migrants at a higher rate than the US, Mexico also signed an agreement with the US in June pledging money to improve opportunities for work in the Northern Triangle. Nonetheless, questions about whether this agreement will bring meaningful change remain pertinent in the light of a worsening crisis.

Our survey research shows little public interest in accepting refugees. Public sentiment is unlikely to change unless the Lopez Obrador administration finds ways to both build sympathy for the plights of refugees and address public concerns about a refugee crisis with no perceived end in sight. For example, research in the US finds public support for refugees is often higher when the emphasis is on women and children, and the Lopez Obrador administration could attempt to frame the crisis as helping specifically these groups who historically comprise most refugees. Likewise, coordinating efforts with the US and other countries may help portray to the public that the burden of refugee resettlement is being equitably shared rather than disproportionately placed on Mexico.

Facing a complex situation affecting multiple governments requires coordinated efforts and considerable resources to reach a long-term solution. Until then, the Central American refugee crisis will continue and public backlash in Mexico likely increase.

Isabel Eliassen is a 2021 Honors graduate of Western Kentucky University. She triple majored in International Affairs, Chinese, and Linguistics.

Alianna Casas is an Honors Undergraduate Researcher at Western Kentucky University, majoring in Business Economics, Political Science, and a participant in the Joint Undergraduate/Master’s Program in Applied Economics.

Timothy S. Rich is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Western Kentucky University and Director of the International Public Opinion Lab (IPOL). His research focuses on public opinion and electoral politics.

Funding for this survey was provided by the Mahurin Honors College at Western Kentucky University.

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