TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
9 April 2023: Counting crowds, plus texts and tunes
First things first: I’m sorry! I know it’s Sunday, and the newsletter is a day late. I’ll try not to let it happen again!
On to more important things. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how I’m often uncomfortable when my analysis falls too squarely within the mainstream, or when it gets too many nods of approval. This week brought a caveat: there are some people whose approval I’m very happy to have, and Paul Krugman (or pretty much anyone else with a Nobel Prize) is one of them.
To wit, a little more than a week ago, I published a policy brief with CEPA — co-authored with Margarita Balmaceda, Ben Schmidt, Janis Kluge and Olena Pavlenko, all of whom are much more knowledgeable than I am — arguing that Europe has effectively blunted Russia’s vaunted energy weapon. On Thursday, Prof Krugman published a column in the New York Times arguing almost exactly the same thing. Not only did he argue that, but he honed in on the same social solidarity policies I tried to highlight in our brief, through which European governments have cushioned the blow from high energy prices on consumers and businesses. Alas, he didn’t cite our paper (though he did cite an excellent policy memo by the ECFR, which I hadn’t read), but that doesn’t matter, at least not to me. I’m just basking the notion that Prof Krugman looked at the same evidence that I do and came to the same conclusion.
In what was something of a week of affirmation, I also took solace in an interview in the Financial Times with Tim Wu, a law professor who recently returned to Columbia University after a leave of absence from academia to go work for the Biden Administration, specifically on anti-trust policy. Whatever proximity to power I might enjoy as a Washington pundit pales in comparison to the position Prof Wu held; Prof Wu was not simply near power, he had power, and with it responsibility and angst of a degree I cannot really fathom. And yet the same frustration I sometimes feel as an academic in the policy world — something I’ve written about a few times in this newsletter — came through in Prof Wu’s interview:
In academia, you’re your own boss, you don’t have to co-ordinate with anyone to write your syllabus, really. It’s not constantly about trying to get stuff across the line or over the door and I don’t live in fear of saying the wrong thing and creating an embarrassing scandal. Nothing at the level of worrying about blurting out a national secret. This job is much less stressful, is a good way to put it.
Less stressful, yes — but not, I think, only because academia operates at a slower pace, and with less authority. Politics, at the end of the day, is a game of compromise, which means you inevitably spend time doing and saying things that you know are not quite right. It’s that compromise, at least in my experience, that makes the work so maddening.
What I’m thinking about
When I wasn’t basking in the glow of all that aforementioned affirmation, I actually spent much of the week wallowing in the mire of disinformation. I mean, between Donald Trump’s “I’m-a-victim” vitriol, Suella Braverman’s “Rwanda-has-a-wonderful-human-rights-record” revisionism and the Pentagon intel leak, haven’t we all?
In truth, though, it’s less that I’ve been wallowing in disinformation as such, and more that I’ve been bathing in our continuing inability to understand how it works — and by “our”, I mean social scientists. On one level, of course, there has been a tremendous amount of really good research done, showing how certain kinds of messaging and certain structures of communication do and do not have potential real-world impacts. But on another level, the aggregate conclusion of all of that research is deeply ambiguous. To wit, I spent Friday at an excellent workshop at Columbia University, which included a paper titled “Are we overestimating the impact of Russian propaganda?” and another paper titled “Are we underestimating the impact of Russian propaganda?”
The short answer answer to both questions, it turns out, is “yes.” The longer answer is “it depends”. And the even longer answer is “it depends on what you think constitutes impact”.
Bear with me for a moment, while I rewind from Friday to Wednesday, when I was privileged to chair a seminar in which researchers presented evidence on the impact of Russian disinformation in comparative perspective. On the table were two pieces of published research that I’ve already featured in this newsletter:
An article in Nature Communications by Gregory Eady, Tom Paskhalis, Jan Zilinsky, Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler and Josh Tucker, titled “Exposure to the Russian Internet Research Agency foreign influence campaign on Twitter in the 2016 US election and its relationship to attitudes and voting behavior”; and
An article in The International Journal of Press/Politics by Aaron Erlich and Calvin Garner, titled “Is pro-Kremlin Disinformation Effective? Evidence from Ukraine”.
In some ways, the two pieces of research confirm one another. In particular, they agree that the actual real-world impact in both cases appears to have been negligible. The articles differ significantly, however, on the question of why that impact was negligible.
In the Eady et al piece, the authors show — very convincingly, with massive amounts of finely tuned data — that exposure to Russian and Russian-promoted messaging on Twitter in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election had no statistically significant impact on people’s political positions or voting patterns. This was in part because exposure to this kind of messaging was in fact fairly rare, and because when exposure did occur, it was almost exclusively among people who were already highly likely to vote for Trump.
In the Erlich and Garner piece, however, the authors show — again, very convincingly — that widespread exposure to Russian and Russian-promoted messaging (regardless of the platform) failed to have much of an impact in the run-up to the 2022 full-scale invasion because Ukrainian citizens were already mostly resilient to it. The authors trace this resilience to shifts in Ukrainian society that occurred after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014, including an increased awareness of disinformation, increased mitigation by the government (including a degree of censorship), and, perhaps most importantly, a galvanized sense of Ukrainian identity.
Fast-forwarding back to Friday, the debate between the “overestimating” and “underestimating” papers broke down along similar lines: in terms of measurable exposure to Russian messaging and resulting changes in beliefs or behavior, disinformation seems to be a vanishingly small phenomenon; but in terms of the impact on broader social and political discourse, the impact seems very real indeed.
The question, then, comes down to where you think disinformation — and, in fact, information in general — actually has its greatest impact. If you think that (dis)information is fundamentally about individuals, who receive messaging of varying degrees of truth, and then formulate their beliefs and strategies accordingly, then you’re likely to come down on the “overestimation” side of the debate. If, on the other hand, you think that (dis)information is fundamentally about social groups and whole societies, and that people’s beliefs and strategies are shaped not in the quiet of their own heads, but in the cacophony of their social interactions, then you’re more likely to come down on the “underestimation” side.
For what it’s worth, my own thinking about this falls fairly firmly in the latter camp. Most people, I think, collect and process information (including, unwittingly, disinformation) less for individual purposes, and more for social ones. We need to be able to talk about life and the world with our friends, colleagues, family members and neighbors. To do that effectively and harmoniously, we need to know what they know, broadly speaking, and we prefer to interpret the “facts” more or less the way they do. As a result, as soon as disinformation gets a toe-hold in a person’s social environment, it will begin to exert a gravitational pull on all of the individuals within that environment, likely overcoming whatever in-build resistance to falsehoods those individuals may or may not have — unless, as Erlich and Garner write, the social environment itself has structures of resistance and resilience.
The conclusions that I’m drawing from my weeklong immersion in disinformation studies, then, are these:
Disinformation is real, and it is impactful, but we shouldn’t be trying to measure it exclusively as an individual-level phenomenon;
Just because we see disinformation manifested in the media doesn’t mean the media is where we should focus our efforts to combat it.
That last point, to me at least, is the key takeaway. The media might be the entryway for disinformation into our social systems, but it is our social systems themselves — with all of their relatively strengths and vulnerabilities — that actually do the damage. If we want to undo that damage or prevent it from happening in the future, we might want to spend less time policing the media, and more time rebuilding the bonds of solidarity that tether us to shared truths, rather than divisive lies.
What I’m reading
The bombshell this week was, of course, the interview with ex-Federal Protective Service (FSO) officer Gleb Karakulov, who fled Russia with his family in opposition to the war. Published Tuesday by the Dossier Centre, the interview provides a detailed account of how the FSO functions, how Putin himself works (at least as far as his bodyguards can observe), and Karakulov’s own story. It’s fascinating and harrowing in equal measure, even if it doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know: Putin is cut off from independent sources of information, isolates himself from even his closest aides, and seems to live in fear of both literal and figurative contagion.
In all honesty, as I read and re-read the interview I found myself wondering whether Karakulov might not be telling us what he thought we wanted to hear — so closely did his story hew to the conventional wisdom about Putin and the war. That doesn’t mean that I doubt his authenticity, even if he might be embellishing his story about to win favor with his audience. (And he could be forgiven for that, given the vulnerable situation in which he now finds himself.)
But reading Karakulov’s story, what I wondered about most of all is why he’s alone. He talks at length about how his dissatisfaction with Putin and the regime in general grew, even before the war, as he saw the corruption and wealth that swirled around the top echelons of Russian power. His colleagues must have seen that, too. And they, too, must have seen the circumstances in which Putin went to war, as Karakulov did. It’s not hard to understand why most people don’t defect, but it is nonetheless jarring that stories like Karakulov’s are so few and far between.
Part of the answer to that question might come from a mildly amusing report in Meduza on Monday, which got its hands on some of the agitprop the Russian military distributes to soldiers. A big part of it, not surprisingly, is a highly idiosyncratic reading of history (stretching back to the 16th century). But the part that matters is the volume of text devoted to explaining to soldiers what will happen to them if they desert or, worse, defect. The pamphlet discusses taking “concrete measures to correct the situation on the front lines”, including “a return to Stalinist methods of warfare.”
A more nuanced explanation came on Friday from Andrei Kolesnikov. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Andrei elegantly encapsulates what many of us have been observing for a while now, namely that this war has become the organizing principle of Russian politics, and Russian life more broadly. He writes:
For both active Putin supporters and passive conformists, the war is no longer just a part of everyday existence. It is a way of life. And instead of rationalizing it as a prolonged disruption, they have begun to see it as something more permanent. Sure, everyone understands that victory is the goal. But that goal has been pushed so far into the future that it has become as symbolic and distant as the final stage of communism was for several generations of Soviet people. To enter a permanent state of war, many Russians have had to come to terms with the twisted logic of the person who initiated the conflict and dragged the nation into it. In other words, they have sought psychological comfort in the regime and the idea of national unity it embodies, no matter how damaging that might be to their own lives and the country’s future. Either you are with us, supporters of Putin have learned to think, or you are a national traitor.
In other news this week:
On Wednesday, Holod published a profile of a young couple from Nizhny Tagil, who were arrested earlier in the week on espionage and treason charges. The husband, Danil Mukhametov, worked at the arms manufacturer Uralvagonzavod, and the conventional wisdom has it that the arrest is linked to the charges against Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich, who had been reporting in Nizhny Tagil not long before his arrest for spying. Apart from the obvious impact on the couple — who are likely to become scapegoats as the FSB seeks to manufacture a case against Gershkovich for public consumption — this will reinforce what is likely to be a growing sense among many Russian citizens that talking to foreigners is dangerous.
Last Friday, Novaya Gazeta Europe published a data-heavy report on the state of the Russian economy, the core upshot of which is the degree to which military spending has masked a major contraction of the civilian sector. Automotive production is down some 50% year on year, as is production of washing machines and similar appliances; sales of clothing, appliances, furniture and mobile phones have also plummeted, while a combination of inflation and declining incomes has eaten significantly into purchasing power.
A few months ago, I mentioned in this newsletter an excellent new book on Russian and Ukrainian politics, Staging Democracy by Jessica Pisano, professor of politics at the New School of Social Research. Regardless of whether you have read or intend to read the book, check out this ‘discussion-in-text’, in which Jessica delves not only into the nuances of Russian and, in particular, Ukrainian politics, but also continues to help lay out the progressive/leftist argument for supporting Ukraine.
What I’m listening to
When I spend too much time on the road, there are a handful of songs that get me through. For the melancholy, stuck-in-a-rut moments, there’s Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “Crash on the Highway”. For the darker, what-am-I-doing-with-my-life moments, there’s Dan Mangan’s “Road Regrets”. And then there’s the song that’s kept me going this week. It’s a bit of a departure, but isn’t what what the road’s all about?