When I heard the news that Prime Minister Theresa May had announced a surprise General Election, the thought did cross my mind that I could expect to take a break from media work for a while, since I am in no way an expert on British politics. In contrast to the United States, where the campaign starts ridiculously early but doesn’t entirely drown out all other news, general election campaigns in this country are short-lived and so intense that they almost completely dominate current events coverage. But these days there is a Russia angle to so many news stories, and so I found myself speaking to Jon Holmes at talkRADIO this afternoon about whether the UK general election might be on the receiving end of Russian interventions.
One of the things that I want to do with this blog is to use it to expand on points that I make in media commentary, so let’s see how this works in practice.
There are several parts to the question of whether Russia might seek to influence the results of the upcoming British election. One part is capability – and based on recent precedents, Russia is clearly able to make such interventions. The US presidential elections demonstrated how the leaking of hacked emails can damage a candidate, but while some kind of cyber attack is certainly possible in the UK setting, it is not necessary for Moscow to choose such a complicated course of action. Russia has developed a degree of expertise in using open media (through outlets such as RT and Sputnik) and social media to disseminate messages in Western countries. As we become more and more dependent on our Facebook and Twitter feeds to access the news, Russia’s trolling tactics have more opportunities to succeed in creating confusion and uncertainty and perhaps in gaining acceptance for completely false narratives. Russia already has the infrastructure for this type of intervention, so it would be fairly cheap and easy to extend its focus to the UK general election.
Another part to this question is motive – why would Russia seek to influence the outcome of the British elections? Here I don’t think there is an obvious candidate for Moscow to support or to oppose, as there was in the US or as there has been in France, Germany and the Netherlands. This may be where my lack of in-depth knowledge of British politics lets me down, but I haven’t noticed any of the leaders of the major parties clamouring for an end to economic sanctions against Russia, or talking about the wasted opportunities for closer cooperation with Moscow. On the specifics of dealing with Putin’s Russia, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus in mainstream UK politics.
Even the issue in the campaign likely to be of greatest interest to Moscow – how British voters feel about Brexit one year on from the referendum and with a better sense now of what it might mean in practical terms to leave the European Union – cuts across party lines in confusing ways. But while there may not be a straightforward protege for Russia to praise or an opponent to disparage, there is some benefit to Moscow in sowing dissension and dissatisfaction in the West. In general, Russia prefers not to face the West as a solid bloc united in opinions that do not serve Moscow’s interests. Issues and events that create or exacerbate social, economic and political tensions within a given society can open up the possibility for Russian advantage. As Katarzyna Zysk pointed out in an interview with E-IR, the use of disinformation/propaganda is part of Russia’s New Generation Warfare approach (often referred to in the West as “hybrid warfare”), which places emphasis on non-military means of gaining an advantage over adversaries.
Every time the issue of Russian intervention in Western elections comes up, it is swiftly followed by discussions about what can be done about it. Experts in communications and public relations have particular strategies to suggest to expose and counter fake news (informed perhaps by the Ukrainian experience), while those who know about cyber security can advise on making systems less vulnerable to attack. At this point in the discussions, my feminist side usually pushes its way to the fore and makes me want to issue a reminder that the best way of avoiding the exploitation of underlying tensions is to deal with those tensions at their sources. If groups in society feel ignored or marginalised and believe (or know) that they do not get fair treatment and opportunities, they are much more likely to be receptive to messages that question the status quo and the established authorities. Let’s not fool ourselves that this is a problem that can be solved by short-term, technical fixes. If we want Western societies that are strong enough to resist these kinds of interventions, we need to put more effort into finding long-term solutions to problems of injustice and inequality.