How to Destroy Democracy, the Trump-Putin Way

All around the world, strongmen are seizing power and subverting liberal norms.

fascism came out of particular historical circumstances that do not obtain today—

  • a devastating world war,
  • drastic economic upheaval, the
  • fear of Bolshevism.

.. When Naomi Wolf and others insisted that George W. Bush was taking us down the path of 1930s Germany, I thought they were being histrionic. The essence of fascism after all was the obliteration of democracy. Did anyone seriously believe that Bush would cancel elections and refuse to exit the White House?

.. So maybe fascism isn’t the right term for where we are heading. Fascism, after all, was all about big government—grandiose public works, jobs jobs jobs, state benefits of all kinds, government control of every area of life. It wasn’t just about looting the state on behalf of yourself and your cronies, although there was plenty of that too. Seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump at the press conference following their private meeting in Helsinki, though, I think maybe I’ve been a bit pedantic. Watching those two thuggish, immensely wealthy, corrupt bullies, I felt as if I was glimpsing a new world order—not even at its birth but already in its toddler phase. The two men are different versions of an increasingly common type of leader:

  • elected strongmen ‘who exploit weak spots in procedural democracy to come to power, and
  • once ensconced do everything they can to weaken democracy further,
  • while inflaming powerful popular currents of
    • authoritarianism,
    • racism,
    • nationalism,
    • reactionary religion,
    • misogyny,
    • homophobia, and
    • resentments of all kinds.

.. At the press conference Putin said that associates of the billionaire businessman Bill Browder gave Hillary Clinton’s campaign $400 million, a claim Politifact rates “pants on fire” and about which The New York Times’ Kenneth Vogel tweeted, “it was so completely without evidence that there were no pants to light on fire, so I hereby deem it ‘WITHOUT PANTS.’”

.. A Freudian might say that his obsession with the imaginary sins of Clinton suggests he’s hiding something. Why else, almost two years later, is he still trying to prove he deserved to win? At no point in the press conference did he say or do anything incompatible with the popular theory that he is Putin’s tool and fool.

.. These pantsless overlords are not alone. All over the world, antidemocratic forces are winning elections—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—and then using their power to subvert democratic procedures.

There’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—remember how when he first took office, back in 2014, he was seen as a harmless moderate, his Justice and Development Party the Muslim equivalent of Germany’s Christian Democrats? Now he’s shackling the press, imprisoning his opponents, trashing the universities, and trying to take away women’s rights and push them into having at least three, and possibly even five, kids because there just aren’t enough Turks.

.. Then there’s Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, who coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe these elected authoritarian regimes, now busily shaping the government to his own xenophobic ends, and

.. Poland’s Andrzej Duda, doing much the same—packing the courts, banning abortion, promoting the interests of the Catholic church.

Before World War II Poland was a multiethnic country, with large minorities of Jews, Roma, Ukrainians, and other peoples. Now it boasts of its (fictional) ethnic purity and, like Hungary and the Czech Republic, bars the door to Muslim refugees in the name of Christian nationalism.

One could mention

  • Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte,
  • Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi,
  • Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, and
  • India’s Narendra Modi as well.

Pushed by anti-immigrant feeling, which is promoted by

  • unemployment and
  • austerity,

right-wing “populist” parties are surging in

  • Italy,
  • Greece,
  • the Netherlands,
  • France,
  • Germany,
  • Austria, and even
  • Sweden and
  • Denmark.

And don’t forget Brexit—boosted by pie-in-the-sky lies about the bounty that would flow from leaving the European Union but emotionally fueled by racism, nativism, and sheer stupidity.

.. At home, Donald Trump energizes similarly antidemocratic and nativist forces. Last year, outright neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, and Trump called them “very fine people.” This year, Nazis and Holocaust deniers are running in elections as Republicans, and far-right misogynist hate groups like the Proud Boys are meeting in ordinary bars and cafés.

.. The worst of it is that once the leaders get into power, they create their own reality, just as Karl Rove said they would:

  • They control the media,
  • pack the courts
  • .. lay waste to regulatory agencies,
  • “reform” education,
  • abolish long-standing precedents, and
  • use outright cruelty—of which the family separations on the border are just one example—to create fear.

While everybody was fixated on the spectacle in Helsinki, Trump’s IRS announced new rules that let dark-money groups like the National Rifle Association and the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity keep their donors secret. 

.. American democracy might not be in its death throes yet, but every week brings a thousand paper cuts.

.. There’s nothing inevitable about liberal democracy, religious pluralism, acceptance of ethnic diversity, gender and racial equality, and the other elements of what we think of as contemporary progress.

.. He has consolidated a bloc of voters united in their grievances and their fantasies of redress. The

  • fundamentalist stay-home moms, the
  • MAGA-hat wearing toughs, the
  • Fox-addicted retirees, the
  • hedge-fund multimillionaires and the
  • gun nuts have found one another.

.. Why would they retreat and go their separate ways just because they lost an election or even two? Around the world it may be the same story: Democracy is easy to destroy and hard to repair, even if people want to do so, and it’s not so clear that enough of them do.

How Russian & Alt-Right Twitter Accounts Worked Together to Skew the Narrative About Berkeley

#Antifa and #Berkeley were hot topics last weekend in America — and in Russia

In the case study below, I describe how the narrative surrounding Berkeley was picked up and shaped by Russian-linked influence networks, which saw a chance to drive a wedge in American society and ran with it. Next, I look at the individual accounts and users that were identified as top influencers on Twitter, and explore what they were posting, how they worked together to craft a narrative, and the methods they used to amplify their message. Finally, I look at how news coverage of the events in Berkeley was shaped by the skewed narrative that emerged on social media.

.. Three of the top 10 most frequently shared URLs within the Russian-linked influence network were related to Antifa or the Berkeley protests

.. these trends show that users in the network of Russian-linked influence operations wanted to exploit unrest in the U.S. and “amplify alt-right alarmism about the left-wing Antifa (short for anti-fascist) movement.” For several consecutive days this week, the most-tweeted link in the network was a whitehouse.gov petition seeking to declare Antifa a terrorist group.

.. Once it started trending, the ‘alt-right’ made a concerted effort to flood the hashtag #Berkeley with negative posts about #Antifa in an attempt to saturate the hashtag, as well as to mix in some misinformation and disinformation to muddy the waters. The purpose was to create and then establish control of the narrative, skew perceptions of the event and those involved in it, and influence mainstream media coverage by boosting the visibility of certain content.

.. the hashtag #Antifa looked quite different. Nearly all of the top influencers were ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters, including

  • Mike Cernovich,
  • Paul Joseph Watson,
  • Irma Hinojosa,
  • Mike Tokes,
  • Nick Short,
  • Bill Mitchell, and
  • Dinesh DSouza.

.. Only two of the top 30 influencers were not part of this ‘alt-right’/far-right group

.. Notably, a fake Julian Assange account was the most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag (as measured by engagement), and both Roger Stone (bottom row, far left) and Nigel Farage were also among the top influencers (bottom row, last on the right).

.. A final noteworthy observation: The third most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag was one of the many fake Antifa accounts (BevHillsAntifa) created in the spring and summer of 2017.

.. Antifa is not an organization

..  Other dominant themes included a concerted effort to connect Antifa to the Democratic party and to smear the name of Black Lives Matter, as well as to shift the focus from the surge of right-wing extremist violence to the individual actions of “leftist” protesters.

.. you can see the narrative surrounding #Antifa really start to take shape. The dominant themes all involved presenting an exaggerated threat and promoting right-wing alarmism about that threat. These themes included labeling Antifa as a terrorist organization, trying to link Antifa to George Soros, presenting Antifa as the aggressor and far-right extremists as the victims, and trying to portray Antifa as the “real” fascists. Both-siderism was also a common tactic used, often in attempt to equate hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan with Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

..Repetition is one of the most important elements of successful propaganda dissemination. Even when information is not true, being exposed to it repeatedly and from multiple sources boosts its credibility and increases the likelihood that an audience will internalize and believe the message. Repetition also increases the likelihood that any given person will be exposed to the message, while simultaneously drowning out alternative messages and perspectives.

.. When people see that other individuals with similar ideological viewpoints are propagating a certain message or position, they’re more likely to adopt that perspective themselves. Additionally, perceptions of widespread support can make extreme ideas seem more acceptable and “mainstream” —a key step in the process of normalization. These social normative factors make social media ripe for manipulation, as it’s easy to create false impressions of support using automated accounts (“bots”), cyborgs, and orchestrated hashtag campaigns.

..The methods used by these “alt-right”/far-right figures to shape the narrative surrounding #Antifa and #Berkeley may look familiar, as they mirror the methods used by authoritarian states to manipulate public opinion and skew perceptions of reality

..The experimental psychology literature suggests that, all other things being equal, messages received in greater volume and from more sources will be more persuasive. Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own. High volume can deliver other benefits that are relevant in the Russian propaganda context.

  1. First, high volume can consume the attention and other available bandwidth of potential audiences, drowning out competing messages.
  2. Second, high volume can overwhelm competing messages in a flood of disagreement.
  3. Third, multiple channels increase the chances that target audiences are exposed to the message.
  4. Fourth, receiving a message via multiple modes and from multiple sources increases the message’s perceived credibility, especially if a disseminating source is one with which an audience member identifies.
.. By focusing on the isolated fights and outbursts by individual actors, a handful of Twitter accounts (amplified by bots & cyberborgs) shifted the focus away from the widespread, ongoing, and orchestrated activities of groups like the

Proud Boys and their “military division” known as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), as well as provocateurs and instigators like

.. For months, these “alt-right” and far-right extremists have been traveling to liberal cities and showing up at rallies wearing helmets, goggles, and body armor, and often carrying shields, flagpoles, and weighted sticks. While they’ve gotten (somewhat) more discreet in recent months, their plans for violence — including directions for making weapons to get past securityinstructions for making improvised explosive devices, and discussions about the best gear for battle — are often made out in the open, reflecting just how emboldened these groups have become.

.. They carry this out under the guise of buzzwords like “free speech” or “patriotism”, but their intent is clear: They want to provoke violence.

.. They use these so-called “free speech” rallies as recruitment events to increase their membership, and they know violence sells. They also know that increasing their size and consolidating power requires more mainstream support, and a quick way to get that support is by portraying themselves as brave martyrs fighting against a supposed uprising of “violent leftists” — represented by Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and anyone else they can fool the media into demonizing.

.. By traveling to liberal cities where they know they’ll encounter resistance, they can then frame their violence as a defense against “intolerant leftists” trying to “shut down free speech.” This, in turn, gives mainstream conservatives and right-wing figures a reason (or, in some cases, an excuse) to support their cause.

.. Violence sells. Mainstream news outlets know this, too, which is why they often prioritize sensationalism over context. As Shane Bauer warned in his account of the events in Berkeley, “reporters shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture: Fascists and other far-right extremist groups in America are visible and organized in a way that they haven’t been in decades.” Only this time, they’re harnessing the power of social media to increase their visibility — and Russia is helping them do it.