America has a problem with Russian disinformation – but not in the way that you have been led to believe. ‘Russiagate’ – the name given for allegations that the former American president Donald Trump and his administration were compromised by Moscow and helped his 2016 campaign for the presidency through widespread disinformation campaigns – took American political discourse by storm. However, somewhat ironically, the real Russian disinformation consists of the false stories and allegations leveraged against Russia.
Since mid-2016, these largely uncorroborated and sensationalized stories of nefarious Russian influence and antagonism against America and its people have frequently populated headlines of even the most trusted Western media outlets.
One prime example of this during the heights of the collusion allegations was the Steele Dossier. When looking at one of the dossier’s primary sources in a 2020 investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee found that the main source was a non-Russian employee of the intelligence firm Steele worked for. Moreover, the same investigation yielded that the information the primary source “provided him was second and third-hand information and rumor at best.”
Despite its unsubstantiated nature, the anti-Russia allegations, which consisted of six major claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, that comprised a large portion of the dossier were reported as fact throughout American media.
Like the allegations that comprised Russiagate, allegations of malicious Russian disinformation are almost always proven to be disinformation themselves at worst or shoddy misrepresentations at best. Despite this, they have long-lasting effects. The disinformation on Russia that runs rampant in American media and political discourse, not only misrepresents and harms the relationship between Russia and the United States, but ultimately undermines our democracy and democratic institutions.
While the Mueller Report ultimately found no evidence of collusion between the Trump administration and the Kremlin, those who believed the trend of reporting sensationalized and disingenuous stories on Russia would end were mistaken.
Take for example the allegation that Russia had paid Taliban fighters bounty to kill American in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, this accusation was treated as fact on the campaign trail by President Biden and spread throughout the media without clarification on its unsubstantiated nature. Despite being widely purported as fact, Pentagon officials told NBC that they were unable to substantiate the allegations as early as last November.
Just this April, a fact sheet released from the Biden administration admitted that CIA intelligence on the matter was labeled at only a “low to moderate confidence” level. By spreading this false information, democracy was undermined by willfully misleading the American public and also lowering the credibility of our democratic institutions and their leaders.
The so-called ‘Bountygate’ is not just an isolated instance of how continued disinformation and false stories on Russia have impacted American public thought and opinion. Another of the most consequential and lengthy campaigns of disinformation on Russia is its involvement in Ukraine.
A study conducted by Ru-PAC in 2020 revealed shocking evidence on how disinformation has come to largely characterize the American mainstream media’s coverage of Crimea. When covering Crimea more than 97% of articles by The New York Times and CNN negatively framed Russia’s role in Crimea and 90% failed to mention popular support for reunification. As a result of this disinformation, factual information key to making an informed opinion is largely withheld from Americans. Instead, Americans receive biased and false information towards Russia, actively undermining the ability to make informed political decisions based on factual information, which is central to the functioning of America’s democratic process.
This disinformation has also had measurable impacts on American’s perception of Russia. In an era when building relations with Russia is of utmost importance for global stability, vilifying Russia through spreading false allegations on Russia as fact only does things to weaken this relationship.
A decade ago, only 45% of Americans held an unfavorable opinion of Russia, while this number has risen to a shocking 77% earlier this year. This marked decrease in public opinion of Russia and its correlation with the rise of disinformation on Russia in the American media shows worrying trends for both the integrity of American political discourse and media, and U.S.-Russia relations.
Throughout the American political sphere and media landscape, these sensationalized and largely unsubstantiated stories are treated as fact. Even when they are discredited or walked back – as was the case with Bountygate and the allegations of collusion – the damage is already done.
By receiving false information about Russia presented as fact, Americans are not given the opportunity to form political opinions and electoral decisions based on factual information concerning Russia. Scandals like Russiagate and other examples of malicious disinformation spread throughout American political discourse have damaged the credibility of important democratic institutions, such as the presidency.
Moreover, the effects of rampant disinformation about Russia are not just limited domestically. It also undermines America’s credibility abroad. To uphold our democratic values as Americans, it is imperative that we do not overlook the fallacious allegations towards Russia commonplace in our current political discourse, and instead call it out for what it is: malicious disinformation.
Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn
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.
Why Jen Psaki is a well-masked Sean Spicer
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.
As Refugees Flee Central America, the Mexican Public Sours On Accepting Them
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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