TL;DRussia Weekend Roundup
21 January 2023: Truth and consequences, plus texts and tunes
I am, it turns out, hopelessly behind the times. Information warfare, I learned this week, is so 2021. All the buzz since the, it seems, is about cognitive warfare, in which “the aim is to change not only what people think, but how they think and act.”
But given that cognitive warfare is now almost 18 months old, it’s high time for something new. My money is on epistemological warfare — the battle not just for how people think, but for how people think that people think. Who’s with me?
What I’m thinking about
Is Ukraine safe in Republican hands?
It’s a question I hear a lot — from every incoming European delegation here in Washington, from half the European (and maybe a third of the American) journalists I get to talk to, and from a smattering of other interested parties. And on the face of it, the Republicans themselves have given a reasonably straightforward answer: yes.
To be sure, there remain the likes of Rep. Paul Gosar and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (no relation), who continue to question — often in the most provocative and offensive language possible — the wisdom of American support for Ukraine. Indeed, it was with that part of the GOP in mind that Volodymyr Zelensky addressed Congress back in December, in an attempt, as I wrote at the time, to stiffen the backbones of the party’s leadership. And, indeed, spines appear to be sufficiently stiff where they need to be — thus Tuesday’s joint statement by Reps. Michael McCaul and Mike Rogers, the incoming Republican chairmen of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, respectively, calling on “the administration and our allies to transfer to Ukraine urgently critical weapon systems they need to defeat Russia.” However much Gosar, MTG and their allies might batter, McCaul and Rogers matter more.
Unfortunately, however, the real threat to American support for Ukraine has very little to do with whether American lawmakers actually want to support Ukraine. It has much more to do, alas, with whether they want to support America — a question on which some Congressmen and Congresswomen are surprisingly ambiguous.
House Republicans — from Speaker Kevin McCarthy on down — have already made it clear that they believe a looming battle over the debt ceiling to be their most powerful piece of leverage over the Biden Administration and Democrats in the Senate. To make matters worse, some in the party have come to the conclusion that any compromise on the debt ceiling is tantamount to treason against the party itself, not because they are wedded to fiscal discipline, but because it represents an abdication of the sharpest sword in their sheath. And to make matters even worse than that, the concessions McCarthy made in order to become speaker have taken away the few tools he might have had for keeping the party’s most radical members in check.
The problem, then, is not that the US may not appropriate sufficient military and financial support to sustain a Ukrainian victory. The problem is that the US may fail to appropriate anything at all, entering into one of its regular periods of deep political dysfunction, characterized by stop-gap budgetary measures and period shutdowns. Understanding this problem might be coming, one of the last acts of the 117th Congress was to pass an additional $45 billion in emergency funding for Ukraine, designed to run through to the end of the fiscal year on 30 September 2023. Failing to raise the debt ceiling, however, would (among a great many other bad things) prevent the US government from carrying through on appropriations already legislated — and so even those $45 billion are not a fully settled matter.
If this is — as Reps. McCaul and Rogers suggest it is — a war which it is in America’s vital national interest for Ukraine to win, then the Republican leadership needs to recognize that the party’s approach to fiscal policy, including the debt ceiling, needs to be seen as an integral part of the war effort. They cannot argue for helping Ukraine win the war, if they are simultaneously undermining the ability of the US government to provide that help. If they were to come to that conclusion, then the logical thing for McCarthy to do would be to mold legislation and organize votes in such a way as to deprive the Freedom Caucus of the chance to play games with the debt ceiling in the first place.
The problem for McCarthy, for Ukraine, and for the rest of us is that he has given away most of the speaker’s power to do exactly that, while giving the Freedom Caucus the power to unseat him if he tries. Preventing this from happening, then, will require working to convince the members of the Freedom Caucus themselves that support for Ukraine is too important to risk.
Right from the outset, that task presents a problem — most of the members of the Freedom Caucus have given us very little indication that there’s any area of American policymaking they might plausibly consider to be sacrosanct. If they won’t be swayed by principle, then, self-interest must be the fallback: causing a breakdown in American support for Ukraine must be made extremely politically costly.
A look across the Atlantic suggests this can be done. In Italy, the populist (or, depending on who you ask, neofascist) government of Georgia Meloni has stuck to a steadfastly pro-Ukraine position despite sharing a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini, two men whose affinity for Vladimir Putin is well established. Elsewhere in Europe, the Spanish right-wing populist party Vox was forced to abandon its former pro-Russia stance, while French right-wing leader Marine LePen has moderated her position, and Germany’s AfD has been effectively marginalized for adhering, broadly, to its support for Moscow.
If American support for Ukraine is to endure, then, the Freedom Caucus will need to conclude that their future in American politics will be brighter if they are more like Vox, and less like AfD.
What I’m reading
Two excellent pieces of academic research landed my desk this week, both on the topic of disinformation, and both, in interesting ways, a little counterintuitive.
The first was an article published in Nature Communications, which is best described as the most definitive study yet on the impact of Russian messaging on Twitter turing the 2016 presidential election. Conducted by Gregory Eady (University of Copenhagen), Tom Paskhalis (Trinity College Dublin), Jan Zilinsky (Technical University of Munich), and Richard Bonneau, Jonathan Nagler and Joshua Tucker (all of New York University), the study uses a cleverly designed survey linked to respondents Twitter accounts to track exposure to Russian messaging and link it directly to individuals’ political opinions and behaviors (including voting).
It is worth noting how rare this is. There are plenty of studies that examine exposure to messaging on social media, plenty of other studies that examine political behavior, and a handful of studies that examine the link between exposure and behavior in a laboratory environment. There are exceedingly few studies, however, that examine the link between exposure and behavior in a real-world setting at sufficient scale to allow for robust conclusions. Hats off to NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics, which has (not for the first time) pulled off a real coup here.
I’m aware, though, that not everyone out there gets excited about methodology (and, to be honest, it’s fairly rare that I do), so I probably ought to tell you what the study concludes. In a nutshell: not much — but that’s the interesting part. Basically, Eady et al have three key findings:
Russian messaging reached only a very small proportion of Twitter users. By their estimate, 70% of Russian messaging was seen by only 1% of U.S. Twitter users.
The people who received Russian messaging were overwhelmingly Republicans, and they tended to receive the messaging not directly from Russian sources, but through accounts they follow — and thus, for the most part, from sources within their ideological milieu.
In large measure because Russian messaging primarily reached people who would have voted for Donald Trump anyway, it had no measurable impact on individuals’ voting behavior.
So does this mean that Russia’s online social media efforts in 2016 (or in other elections, in the US or elsewhere) had no impact? By the authors own admission, no, it does not. For one thing, their study focuses only on Twitter, and the dynamics may well have been different on differently structured social networking platforms, such as Facebook or Instagram. More importantly, however, the study focuses on only one potential mechanism of influence: direct influence on an individual. Sociologists and communications scholars, however, have noted other potential avenues of influence that do not rely on individual direct exposure to messaging. These include influence on the content and tenor of the broader public debate, whether by affecting the emotional valence of political discussion, or inserting “facts”, such as the leaked DNC emails; or influence that flows indirectly through social circles.
The primary contribution of the Eady et al study, then, is not to demonstrate that there was no impact from malign messaging during the 2016 election, but to help eliminate one hypothesis about how such an impact might be generated. We can, as the authors suggest, continue to look elsewhere — and that applies not just to messaging emanating from Russia, or to the US, or to 2016. Lots of people try to play this game, in lots of different places, and for lots of different reasons.
Sticking with Russia, though, brings me to the second study, currently published as a working paper, but forthcoming soon in Political Psychology. This study, by Aaron Erlich (McGill University), Calvin Garner (University of Washington), Gordon Pennycook (University of Regina) and David Rand (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), delves deeper into the cognitive and psychological processes that occur when an individual encounters disinformation — in this case, Russian disinformation targeted at Ukrainian media consumers.
In this case, the intuitive expectation would have been that active cognitive processes — critical thought and analysis — would take a back seat to less conscious processes of bias and what psychologists often refer to as “motivated reasoning”, i.e. the propensity of people to interpret things in ways that fit their preexisting views of the world. Why? Because that’s most often the case: there’s a large literature on bias and motivated reasoning in democracies, and copious evidence that the impact of bias and motivated reasoning is even higher in places that, like Ukraine when the study was conducted (2021), have clear and polarizing political divides.
That, as you may already have guessed, is not what Erlich et al found. Quite the contrary, they found that media literacy, analytical thinking and critical reflection had a significant impact on survey respondents’ propensity to accept or dismiss Russian messaging, even controlling for prior political positions, ethnic and linguistic identification, geography, and so on. In other words, you would expect people already predisposed to accept or reject Russian messaging to not need much in the way of analysis or reflection to form an opinion; and yet Erlich and his colleagues find that people do nonetheless use whatever critical faculties they have (which, of course, vary from person to person), and that this use produces a real shift in their perceptions and behaviors.
In my reading, at least, the Erlich et al paper stands intriguingly at odds with the Eady et al paper. Eady et al suggest that what interventional messaging such as that produced by Russia in the US in 2016 achieves is primarily additive: it doesn’t change what people believe, but perhaps encourages them to believe it more fervently. They thus paint a picture that doesn’t leave much room for the thought processes that are at the heart of Erlich et al’s analysis. Obviously, more research is needed.
Briefly, other items that caught my attention:
Le Monde had a report late last week — but which I managed to miss — on the resurgence of Moscow-linked and other pro-Russian media in France, including Omerta, an ultra-conservative website run by the Russia-based French security consultant Charles d’Anjou (no, not the 13th century king). Apart from anything else, the report is heavy on color and provides a fascinating insight into a resurgent Russian attempt to (re)gain traction with French audiences.
Kommersant on Tuesday reported that Russian officials had imposed a tacit ban on local politicians and bureaucrats taking overseas vacations, after photos posted to social media from Mexico and Dubai caused a series of minor scandals. More proof, I suppose, that the Kremlin really doesn’t care about public opinion? (Irony alert)
And on Monday, the FT reported that Western banks have been struggling to find ways of divesting their Russian subsidiaries, as they try to prevent their assets from being taken over by Kremlin cronies — and, of course, seek to minimize their losses. France’s Société Générale was reportedly in such a hurry to get out at the start of the war that it took a €3.3 billion loss. Not all of its competitors are evidently prepared to go down that road.
What I’m listening to
Because I feel like I owe it to someone.