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Putin, the political technologist

Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The 35-page dossier published by Buzzfeed alleging collusion and conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian state in pursuit of what the Kremlin calls “active measures” against Hillary Clinton – not to mention the matter of prostitutes and, ahem, a “golden showers” show (if you have to ask, you don’t want to know) in Moscow paid for by Donald Trump in 2013 or thereabouts and now available for use in blackmailing him – may or may not damage the president-elect.

Trump is the Great Transgressor, able to say and do things that no serious politician has ever said or done before (and survived). Nothing he can say or do in the coming four years can be expected to convince his supporters of his unfitness to govern, and ordering prostitutes to pee on the Moscow hotel bed used by the Obamas just because he could, were such a bizarre episode to have occurred, wouldn’t cut it either.

As Trump himself said at one campaign rally, even if he went out on the street and shot someone, his supporters wouldn’t care.

But that’s another column. The big story this week is the Russian state’s interference in the US democratic process and election campaign – not that it happened, and is happening in many other countries as of this writing, such as Sweden (both Russia and the US, like many other powers, seek to influence political outcomes in other countries, for a variety of reasons) – but that it was so systematic and brazen.

Trump dismisses the Buzzfeed dossier as “fake news”. But it was taken seriously enough by the far-from-left-wing John McCain to be forwarded to the FBI, who then summarised and circulated it to the president and president-elect. The official report of US intelligence agencies published recently already confirmed the role of Russian state cyber-security in the 2016 election campaign.

It would be wrong to characterise the Russian state’s deployment of cyber-hacking, email-leaking, and targeted dissemination of fake or false news as mere propaganda. Propaganda implies for many people falsity, although it can just as easily refer to the propagation of true information and sincerely held beliefs.

The word “propaganda” brings to mind the Nazis, as well as the Bolshevik era of Lenin and Stalin. But the propagandists of the past did not live in a globalised, networked world of digital communication with access to social media.

In the digital age it is more accurate to think in terms of what Andrew Wilson in a recent book calls “political technology”:

… the euphemism commonly used in the former Soviet states for what is by now a highly developed industry of political manipulation.

Putin and his team take a strategic approach to the management of information, both inside Russia and in the broader global community. Tactics have included repressing dissident media outlets and journalists, and the high-profile assassinations of non-journalistic critics such as Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko.

Notwithstanding Kremlin denials, there is substantial evidence from the UK government and elsewhere that these were political killings intended to intimidate the opposition, almost certainly approved by Putin himself.

In addition to coercion, the Kremlin has more sophisticated tools for managing information. Peter Pomerantsev’s analysis of Russia’s communication warfare exposes a strategy designed not to prove or disprove one account or another – of, say, the downing of MH17 in July 2014 – but to overwhelm the global media with multiple accounts of greater or lesser plausibility – fake news, as it were – and allowing the internet to do the rest.

Pomerantsev refers to a Russian-language publication entitled Information-Psychological War Operations: A Short Encyclopedia and Reference Guide – “a kind of user’s manual for junior information warriors”. He highlights the growing role of the state-funded TV channel Russia Today (RT), with its editor-in-chief’s slogan of:

There is no such thing as objective reporting.

RT has been hugely successful in appealing to those more naive folk in the West who perceive it as a refreshing alternative source of news coverage. Putin’s co-nationalist and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond even went on the channel to denounce, without the least sense of irony, the bias of the BBC over its coverage of the 2014 independence referendum.

As for events in which Russia was directly involved as an actor, such as the shooting down of the MH17 aircraft, RT provides a transnational outlet for Putin’s preferred version. Hundreds of individual “trolls” sit in nondescript offices in Moscow and St Petersburg, paid to maintain a pro-Putin presence on key domestic and overseas social networks and news outlets.

Many state security apparatuses use these tools. Edward Snowden’s exposure of the surveillance activities of the US National Security Agency shocked us all.

Putin’s use of communication is by no means unique, therefore, although he has taken “political technology” to unprecedented levels of intensity and sophistication. One of Putin’s communication advisors, Gleb Pavlovsky, has said:

We [the Russians] live in a mythological era. We have gone back to the Ancient World where the distinction between myth and reality didn’t exist.

In the West we have come to call this phenomenon “post-truth” culture, and it is a technique mastered by the Trump campaign.

Was Obama not born in the US? Who cares, if in putting the possibility out there – Trump’s “birther” movement – we get people asking the question and thus undermining the legitimacy of the first black president.

Were thousands of Muslims seen celebrating in the streets of New York after 9/11? Doesn’t matter if it’s true or false. In fact, it’s a myth, but Trump made it a political reality, and with the assistance of social media enough voters bought this and other of his big lies to give him the White House.

Putin’s political technology has been exposed. And in normal times the officially confirmed evidence of interference in the US election on behalf of Trump – forget about the Buzzfeed dossier for the moment – would have done for Trump as a serious presidential candidate long ago.

But these are strange times, and Trump will survive this as he has survived all previous transgressions. If Reagan was the teflon president, Trump will be frictionless. Nothing sticks to him, and the US state seems unable to protect itself from what looks evermore like a democratic coup.

President Trump, meantime, will approach political communication in the same way as he ran his campaign – according to the Putin playbook of political technology.

Unlike Putin, however, Trump faces a free and independent media charged with critical scrutiny of the powerful. He can try to shut down CNN or Buzzfeed in media conferences, but he can’t make them and organisations like them go away without turning the US into a transparently fascist state. That, friends, must be our first, best hope in the years to come.

Brian McNair is the author of Communication and Political Crisis (Peter Lang, 2016).

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