Emotions can be governed by societies. This lesson was mastered by the right-wing populist movements taking over power in many places of the democratic world. They have skilfully awoken and escalated some of our most basic feelings associated with the foundations of the human psyche.
One of their favourites to manipulate is a false dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Without exception, that which is sacred is the nation and its independence, and this is juxtaposed with the profane or immoral immigrants who are intent on destroying the country.
This is the common denominator connecting Orbán, Kaczyński, Farage and Trump. And this narrative works everywhere – even where immigrants are hardly visible, as in Poland.
Who are they and what do these populist leaders in Europe want?
Populist movements do not despise the foundations of authority and rebellion. Even though their representatives have been in politics for decades or belong to the highest financial echelon, they build support among the populace by drumming up rebellious sentiments calling for the explosion of “the elite”: be it “the swamp” in Washington, local political and social elites or the Eurocrats.
Their next favourite comparison to deploy relates to loyalty and betrayal; opponents to the populists are most often depicted as unpatriotic cronies of foreign powers. It cannot be concealed, however, that a similar comparison is made by the opposition which points out the external connections of populists – most often Russia – as well.
Trolls for right-wing populists
It cannot be denied that the Russian trolls in the last round of elections supported right-wing populists (and we know that in some cases, help went much further – as demonstrated by the Mueller investigation in the USA, for example).
So, what if these populists are the just the paid traitors of Russia? It is impossible to exclude this prospect, but perhaps this influence is only a tool for Moscow to achieve a completely different set of goals.
The lost power of Russia
Russia is a country troubled by many problems, but since the collapse of the USSR, it has been mourning the loss of its power and dreaming of regaining it with an acceptable substitute.
At the same time, the situation in Russia is very difficult at least on two levels. First, the transformation from a socialist to an oligarchic economy was a disaster. How big a catastrophe it is can be easily illustrated with the Ukrainian example, a country which took a parallel path. The fact that Russia does not appear to be in the same boat as its neighbour is only thanks to the significant amount of natural resources at their disposal that finance the social peace and puppet rule of the vassals.
However, the fall in oil prices is a universal sign of the coming crisis in Russia. In any case, natural resources are, as always, a mixed blessing because it makes people lazy, which means that Russia is in a situation where it is not even able to feed its citizens despite its wealth of raw materials and land.
The second reason is the demographic collapse witnessed in the country which has been exacerbated by epidemics of alcoholism, AIDS and depression. Objectively, the perspectives do not look rosy – Russia is doomed to lower its position on the international stage.
Undermining others to remain a superpower
The necessary reforms that could reverse this trend in Russia are virtually impossible to implement as they would directly hit the interests of the ruling kleptocracy. However, maintaining the superpower narrative is a condition of its continued popularity along with providing the minimum standard of living.
Therefore, the only alternative is to intensely undermine the position of other actors on the international scene. An extremely useful tool turned out to be the internet where farms of Russian trolls were able to manipulate public opinion – especially before important elections.
While Russia has usually supported marginal movements in order to undermine the position of the existing elites in any given nation, the effects of this most recent strategy were striking: suddenly it turned out that the characters who did not stand a chance of winning became the favourites. This is how Donald Trump, Andrzej Duda and the Brexiteers won.
Was this the purpose of the Russian trolls? It seems that such far-reaching and lofty goals were not expected. Certainly, they wanted to provoke isolationist tendencies that would in turn arouse tensions among traditional allies, weakening the EU’s institutions, for example.
However, causing – even the partial – breakup of the EU or having the U.S. President question the role of NATO probably exceeded the program’s aspirations. Or is this just the beginning of the Russian plan?
The vaccine debate
Such conclusions are the indirect results from a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in the article “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate” by David Broniatowski et al.
The team analysed the activity of Russian trolls in the field of vaccine debates. The first surprise is that the Russian trolls care about such issues; after all, this is not a politically useful topic from Russia’s point of view. It is hard to believe that the Russians hope that the trolls will convince parents not to vaccinate their children, which will translate into massive epidemics that will demographically impact Western countries.
This is especially so that the Russian bots and trolls did not only support one side of the debate but rather both. What then does this tell us about disinformation and Russia’s long-term goals?
The Russian game of destabilisation
It looks like the Russians have mastered the game of emotions even better than right-wing populists. And even if the populists were incredibly successful in their tactics, playing on one side of the debate in order to gain power, the Russians were about something completely different – raising the temperature of the social dispute and undermining the usual consensus.
By intensifying the debate on both sides of the dispute it not only provoked more people to be generally interested and engaged, but above all, it encouraged at least one of the parties to be indifferent towards large swathes of the population.
In other words, Russia wants to “rise to power” again by fostering social divisions and, in the long run, destabilising Western societies. The fact that this destabilisation has brought to power forces conducive to Russian interests seems only an additional benefit.
This is supported by the fact that the Russian bots have not finished their activities and are penetrating further topics that raise social emotions. They flood the Internet with pro-Kremlin messages, but they also make mistakes. So, what can we expect? Apparently blowing up any debate that may be controversial: supporting both the conservative as well as the liberal sides of an argument.
For the goal does not seem to be the victory of a specific political force but destabilization in general. This, in turn, necessitates governments to have greater involvement in their internal affairs, depleting resources that would otherwise be spent on international affairs, which in turn will leave Russia free to try to rebuild its superpower status.
Tomasz Kasprowicz is an expert in the field of economy, a commentator and journalist. He is also Vice President of the Res Publica Foundation.
This article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight in cooperation with the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and editors of leading newspapers in Central Europe. It was originally published in Polish on Polityka.pl and can be found here.