While the political shockwaves of the last two years have meant that Western politics is more unpredictable than ever, one thing remains steadfast amidst the chaos: accusations of Russian interference in our democratic process. Even Prime Minister Theresa May caught the ‘Russia bug’ in a speech earlier this month by addressing Russia directly and proclaiming “we know what you are doing”, in reference to their alleged interference in Western elections.
The speech came at the perfect time for an embattled Theresa May. The Labour Party have her on the back foot, and she has no real authority or mandate from either the British public or her own party. As hawks like Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond circle over her waiting to succeed her doomed premiership, it is not surprising that May is looking for a distraction from a government that is collapsing around her. It would be naïve to think that May’s speech was aimed at protecting this country, or protecting Western democracy. Like always, she was simply protecting herself.
While allegations of Russian interference must be investigated rigorously, May’s speech and the wider accusations levelled at Moscow over the last two years show a worrying trend: they all conveniently serve to detract from criticisms aimed at establishment politicians and establishment campaigns. It appears that the word ‘Russia’ is now a catch-all excuse for a crumbling neoliberal orthodoxy and the inept campaigns that have lost out to populism on both the left and right. This death rattle is wholly ignorant of the disdain that many now have for ‘establishment’ politics and economics. The conspiracy theory that this disdain was somehow manufactured in the Kremlin merely serves to soothe the wounded egos of politicians who are past their sell-by date.
Let’s take Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, for example. While many Democrats now claim that Russian bots on social media helped Donald Trump take the White House, I posit that it was, in fact, Hillary Clinton’s hyperbolic obsession with Russia that parachuted Trump into power. In the presidential debates, Russia was mentioned more times than racism, abortion, income inequality, climate change and gun control combined. A wild theory, I know, but maybe if Hillary Clinton focused on the issues that mattered to ordinary people in the way that Bernie Sanders did, instead of obsessing over Putin the boogeyman, she might have scraped over the line last year.
Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the Labour campaign to Remain in the European Union was a complete disaster. In a referendum that was going to be decided on youth turnout, the leader of the campaign, Alan Johnson, didn’t even have a Twitter account. The consensus in many Labour quarters was that social media ‘bubbles’ could never swing an election. In fact, they roundly mocked Jeremy Corbyn for the prominence he gave social media in his communication strategy. Fast-forward two years, and they have the brass neck to claim that a few thousand Russian bots on Twitter made Brexit happen and are an unprecedented threat to the country.
Obviously, the ineptitude of these two campaigns should not downplay the seriousness of the allegations. Analysis of social media has confirmed that accounts originating in Russia were tweeting during the respective campaigns, and at times, whipping up racial tensions that would serve to amplify the xenophobic rhetoric of demagogues like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. However, the tangible impact that these bots actually have on our democratic process is yet to be established, and it is highly doubtful that the results would have been any different were it not for Russian interference. It is this assumption that is not only disingenuous but completely hyperbolic. Yes, it’s a problem. But if we gave as much attention to the systemic issues that are causing the majority of people to be dissatisfied with the current political and economic order as we do to Russia – we would be much closer to fixing our broken political systems than we are now. Who knows, we might even be living in an alternative universe where we’re still in the European Union, or have Hillary Clinton as the President of the United States. Instead, those who govern us are covering their ears and screaming the word “Russia” until they spontaneously combust.
Moreover, the unique criticism levelled at Russia for interfering in other countries’ affairs compared to, the United States, for example, is absurd. Ask the people of Chile, or the people of Guatemala, Iran or Iraq. Shining the spotlight on Russia in such a unique way exposes some of the criticisms as politically motivated instead of being out of concern for our democratic order. The real and pressing issue of the role social media plays in politics and how it can be manipulated is being silenced in favour of pernicious, anti-Russian point scoring. So much so, that people are more interested in criticising Russia Today’s coverage of the Catalan independence referendum instead of the shocking scenes of police brutality that it broadcast.
It is this double standard that is troubling to me. It’s one thing to express concern about social media bots, but another to whip up anti-Kremlin sentiment in order to justify our intellectually bankrupt politics. At the moment, critics of the Russian state and those alleging widespread interference are falling into the latter category. We need a calm and rational response to Russian interference, and to acknowledge that as rational political actors vying for power, this kind of behaviour is inevitable. Delving into histrionics and ushering in a new McCarthyism helps nobody, whereas addressing the deep-rooted flaws in our political system will minimise the potential impact that Russia could have in the future. Sadly, it doesn’t seem our leaders have got the message yet.