The toxic information environment has created a cognitive effect, where political moderates on all sides, are now increasingly seen and treated as the ‘new’ radicals. The use of the Russia Gate narrative to scare American voters from Trump and towards the Democratic Party presidential candidate will only be effective if the voter segments hold like-minded value-normative based/informed worldviews, writes Greg Simons, Associate Professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES), Uppsala University, Sweden.
Watching the run-up to the presidential elections in 2020 is in some aspects even more bizarre than the events of the last election in 2016, it is like watching the surreal twists and turns of the worst form of ‘reality’ TV show. However, when taking a more analytical approach, to dissect the logic and reasoning of what is happening and why it is happening, the situation is more easily understood. This short opinion piece will attempt to make sense of the words and actions that defy description by many. Beginning with a quick overview and understanding of concepts in information warfare that is central to the logic of creating ‘scared voters’. The next step is to identify who is applying the scare tactics and the political logic and reasoning behind doing so. Following this definition, the subject shall move to how this is applied and why.
Scaring a target audience, by inducing a sense of fear, requires a deliberate cognitive approach in order to maximise the chances of getting the target group to act in a manner that benefits the agenda of the communicator. Two simultaneous and specific perceptions need to be present: the fear that something bad can happen, for example, a foreign power can interfere in an election; and that a bad thing can happen to them personally, a foreign power can interfere in their election. This is where psychological operations meet political warfare. In essence these are cognitive means of manipulation to direct an audience to come to the conclusion that calls into question the security of their social and political system and the key values that are associated with the country in question. In effect, the intention of these tools is to drive voters (in this instance) away from one political candidate, and the logical choice is the political candidate that is not subject to character assassination, such as in the 2016 presidential election campaign.
The current binary ideological split across US society, politically and in terms of cultural identity, is profound and clear. In simplistic terms, on the one side are those in the camp of the ‘liberal’ political views that favour globalisation and multiculturalism, the so-called “snowflakes”. They tend to live in urban areas on the West and East coasts of the US, and are tangibly more powerful owing to the support of liberal mainstream media and the political establishment (aka “the Swamp”) that have greater financial and informational resources at their disposal. Opposing them are cultural and social conservatives that hold an anti-political establishment worldview, the so-called “deplorables”. Unlike the snowflakes, deplorables tend to live in what is referred to as the “flyover zone” between the coast, more rural and feeling forgotten and marginalised by globalisation. These worldviews are irreconcilable and the level of conflict has been gradually escalating, even before 2016. At the current phase, we deal with the destruction of underlying key myths and values that were the glue holding together a pluralistic society, through “cancel culture”, historical revisionism and “activist” groups such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa. There is also, since 2016, the foreign element found in what has been popularly referred to as “Russia Gate”. And in the 2020 election campaigning one can now add “China Gate” and “Iran Gate”.
The logic of the liberal political establishment is that the very essence of American values (intangible threat) and security (tangible threat) are somehow under attack from these foreign countries, of which Russia has been alleged to have committed interference and ‘meddling’ the longest. These are assertions that make use of pathos (emotional logic) to prime and mobilise audiences, not only against the countries in questions, but also against political candidates that are tied to those countries by tenuous associations. Whereas the conservative anti-political establishment characterise snowflakes and the swamp as being a threat to American values and way of life, i.e. a domestic ideological threat as opposed to a foreign ideological threat against the American political and social system. Both of these narratives involve the use of negative politics in order to reduce the voter appeal of the ideological other by creating the appearance of a repugnant value-normative reputation and brand. As such, it involves the political opponent marketing (obstructive marketing) without the consent of actor being communicated.
One of the lessons from 2016, for some observers, is that the measure of communicational activity does not necessarily automatically translate into communicational effect. In spite of mainstream political and media indicators predicting Hillary Clinton should win the presidential race, the result was different, which caught many by surprise. In 2016 as in 2020, one of the primary obstructive marketing means is to try and associate Trump as being sympathetic or colluding with Russia in order to secure an election win. There is a continuation of the 2016 liberal mainstream media editorial policy of engaging in ‘interpretative journalism’ or as others prefer to refer to it, ‘fake news’.
In spite of a great deal of recent unravelling of the Russia Gate narrative from the time of the conclusion of the Mueller report, there are still currently attempts to employ new stories in an attempt to sustain the Russia election meddling narrative. This peculiar situation, of an increasingly discredited Russia scare narrative, being renewed and reused begets the question as to why it continues to be used. This is woven in a complex ideological historical relationship that has varied greatly from the time of the Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War (in spite of US intervention) and the enemy image was reinforced throughout the Cold War, currently it is seen through the prism of value and normative antagonisms and rivalry that attempt to project the Russian ‘Other’ as at least a rival and sometimes an enemy of liberalism. This is in part understood as being directed against the United States as a national social and political entity and in part against the continued viability of the global liberal order that is supported by the liberal version of the United States. This is seen in liberal mainstream media that attempt to draw a dubious connection between Russia, Trump and Trump’s supporters, such as the assertion that Trump Supporters are using ‘Russian’ tactics.
The 2020 election seems to be heading in a similar direction, where the Biden camp is seen as being mired in establishment politics influence. US intelligence agencies that were so actively engaged in 2016 trying to ensure Trump was not elected and then in attempts to impeach him based on collusion with Russia, have been issuing warnings of Russia already interfering by undermining Biden, but with the added dimension that China and Iran do not want Trump re-elected. Although Russia is projected as being the most active foreign power attempting to subvert American democracy through highly ‘sophisticated’ and very fanciful international conspiracies. The usual selection of emotionally charged buzzwords are signalled – election hacking, disinformation, sowing discord and so forth.
The toxic information environment has created a cognitive effect, where political moderates on all sides, are now increasingly seen and treated as the ‘new’ radicals. The use of the Russia Gate narrative to scare American voters from Trump and towards the Democratic Party presidential candidate will only be effective if the voter segments hold like-minded value-normative based/informed worldviews. This is clearly seen in the measurement of the ideological divide among voters and those that perceive Russia as an enemy or hostile rival. Polls indicate that, in general, Republican voters are more favourably inclined towards Russia than Democrat Party voters. This is based on ideological and cultural identity reasons, for example, US social and cultural conservatives tend to find conservative value affinity with Russia. This is likely to result in at least a segment of the voters not being scared into voting for the Democrats. However, the result of the 2020 US presidential election seems to be even more difficult to predict, not least owing to the heavy use of psychological operations and political warfare that is intended to influence and persuade voter perception and opinion when they come to vote. en they come to vote.