A Colossus with Feet of Clay

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It looks scary, but it’s only a computer-generated image.

“The tumultuous poll in Catalonia left more than 800 injured and pretty much everybody with mixed emotions which offers a perfect opportunity for Russia. Russia has no particular interest in Catalonian independence but Russian media were actively promoting the narrative about Spanish authoritarianism and Russian hackers helped the organizers keep their websites up. Russian interest lies in shifting the narrative around Crimea, keeping the EU busy with other topics than Russian aggression, and mainly in dividing Europe as well as undermining Europe’s democracy and institutions.”

This was written by the European Values Think-Thank, which operates out of Prague and runs a useful program called Kremlin Watch.

Nevertheless, an argument like theirs should be backed up with lots of facts and quotations, not just rolled out as a bald-faced assertion we must either accept or reject.

Russian trolls can, in fact, troll and dispatch bots on any subject they like. It doesn’t necessarily mean, however, their actions will have a decisive effect on every conflict in which they intervene.

True, in the body of the newsletter, there is this follow-up on the story.

“Referendum in Catalonia: The Crimean spring has moved to the Pyrenees… Not.

“Despite Dmytry [sic] Peskov’s statements that the Catalonian referendum is an internal Spanish matter, Russia would not want to miss a chance to bring its alternative point of view on the Catalonian referendum or extend a helping hacking hand to the referendum organizers either. Spanish media have been on high alert. El País blatantly stated that Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe. These accusations have been thoroughly investigated by the Atlantic Council’s DFR Lab, focusing on the role of Sputnik and RT. Russian media spread stories about a violent and repressive Spanish government and warn that a civil war is imminent as the EU passively stands by. Russian creativity is legendary and the media managed to find similarities with the situation in Crimea and Kurdistan.

“According to the Russian press, independent Catalonia might recognize Crimea as part of Russia. The benefits of doing so are not very clear, Russia might in exchange push Nicaragua to recognize Catalonia? “This does not mean that Russia wants Catalonia to be independent at any cost. What it fundamentally seeks is to create division, in order to slowly undermine Europe’s democracy and institutions,” says Brett Schaffer, an analyst at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund. And we can only agree with that.”

There are only three hyperlinks in the entire passage, no other references, and one of the links reiterates the article in El País. It is not enough to convince even a true believer in Russian troll farms like me.

Why not?

Because just the other day I read the following article, published on the excellent Russian charity and investigative reporting website Takie Dela, about the huge numbers of dilapidated residential buildings in Barnaul, capital of Altai Territory. The article details the considerable inconveniences and humiliations faced by the tenants, who are more or less stuck in their flats until the mayor’s office does something, although it is clear to the residents that the mayor’s office would rather the buildings all collapsed, killing the tenants in the wreckage.

Degradation of postwar-built housing stock is a severe problem not just in Barnaul, but all over Russia, a problem the central government (since under Putin 3.0 there is no such thing as local government anymore) has been doing a really bad job of solving.

I could make a list of a hundred other problems plaguing “mighty” Russia right now that the government has pointedly failed to address, because its priorities have been elsewhere (e.g., Crimea and Syria).

Russia is a colossus with incredibly fragile clay feet.

This means three things. First, its active measures operationd involving trolls and bots intervening in the affairs of other countries is one way Russia can assert itself as a supah powah (but not a super power) on the cheap, without spending a lot of money.

Second, since it is doing this on the cheap, the “global vision” guiding its creepy efforts is likewise fragmented, impatient, contradictory, and severely misinformed at times. The Kremlin just wants to make trouble somehow.

Finally, it hasn’t been conclusively proven these operations have been decisive factors in altering the outcome of any election, referendum or conflict.

It’s an invidious comparison, of course, but I hgve been blogging for nearly ten years, and during that time over half a million viewers have read my posts. Does that mean I have been a decisive factor in Russian politics or how the west views Russia? As much as I would like to say, yes, I have been, I cannot say that. I would be happy if I have changed a few people’s minds now and then and, especially, if I have showed them aspects of the Russian grassroots they had never heard of before.

The Internet Research Agency or whatever the Russian trolling and botting campaign now calls itself, has a lot more resources at its disposal for winning hearts and minds, but it is not operating in a vacuum.

Instead, it is operating in an incredibly dense media environment where domestic media outlets, of different political stripes and shapes, will be more persuasive to Catalonians and Spaniards, say, than Russian goofballs smacking away at keyboards wherever the IRA has been hiding out lately and posting dipshit memes and one-liners in comment threads, because the Spanish and Catalonia domestic media understand the issues, speak the languages fluently, and do not speak them with accents.

Do you really imagine that all Catalonians, Spaniards, Americans, Germans, Belgians, etc., are so gullible and incapable of critical thought they cannot tell the difference between a sound reportage or analysis, written by a real local reporter or op-ed columnist, and a pile of crap whipped up by a Russian working the late shift at IRA and loopy as a kite on energy drinks?

Trolling and botting as a way of regaining supah powah status is, in fact, a “weapon of the weak,” but not in the sense James Scott meant the phrase. We should deal with the weapon as such, instead of worrying its mere presence is decisive and disruptive everywhere it rears its puny, feeble head.

To argue otherwise is to imagine that Spanish national cops could not have beaten independence-minded Catalonians over the head, although it was probably not such a smart move, or those same Catalonians were not capable of holding their perhaps illegal referendum without being hypnotized by outside Russian agitators.

Let the Russian trolls pretend they are really shaking up the world with their teenage pranks. In the meantime, competent technicians and hackers should devise a technical solution that would deal a knockout punch to the Russian IRA.

That would be more efficient and make for less panic mongering, which, alas, is not in short supply these days. TRR

Image courtesy of i.imgur.com

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