Russia’s “secret but not that secret” plan to derail Western democracy and its major institutions is working, ridiculously well. Many of us are aware of Putin’s meddling in Western affairs — particularly on the issues of Brexit and the 2016 US Election — and yet we don’t realise that cooperation is needed in face of this dividing power.
Such is the brilliance of Putin’s plan, we are doing the exact opposite of what we should be. In the face of extreme ideas supported by the Russian government, we attack them from all angles and the political environment splinters behind us.
Take the German election as a superb example of this growing trend. In late 2017, the electorate was so deeply divided, due to the rise of the alt-right AfD party, that the CDU/CSU, who won the election, managed only 32.9% of the vote. The last time a party won in Germany with less than that was in the very first federal election after the war, 1949.
The media’s rhetoric is also becoming increasingly divisive and violent in nature, with a virtual war going on between the leader of the Free World and CNN. The situation is similar in the UK, as well as most other countries in Europe, with the Daily Mail being engaged in journalism’s equivalent of guerrilla warfare with the Guardian — which is, in turn, locking horns with the Government over the smallest of issues.
With the traditional media, social media and political party membership, we are increasingly trapping ourselves in an echo chamber, a mirror room of our beliefs. Google and Apple, as well as the social media giants, are becoming increasingly good at recognising our views and only showing us news from the corresponding news outlets. Political parties serve the same purpose with regard to news, giving us a slanted, biased perspective of every story, straight to our email inboxes.
These echo chambers increase division in society. People become less open-minded as they are repeatedly reminded of their views. With most people becoming more politically extreme and diverging from the broad centre ground, most people only get their news from the sources furthest left and right of centre due to these self-perpetuating loops.
And it is these media outlets, on the extreme poles of politics, who are the most violent towards the other sides. As such, not only are people locked in the own beliefs, they are taught to hate the other side. In the UK, this has lead to the word “Tory” holding the same status as a certain word beginning with ‘c’ and ending in ‘unt’, despite it literally just meaning someone from within the Conservative Party.
This division and violence, fed to us by the media in tandem with tech giants and political parties, means that Putin has us on strings. Remember, Russia control (to an extent) the news cycle in the West. If they want to increase division, they will select the most divisive candidate in an upcoming election (e.g. Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini — who is only the Interior Minister but incredibly powerful). Then, they find as much information on their opponent as possible, often illegally, and use it to control the news cycle.
And voila, division is rife. You’re left with a leader who a third of people fervently support and who a third of people vehemently oppose. The remaining third are so angry with the poor choice of candidates that they either don’t vote or just cross a box at random in the election.
All of the sides attack each other, with the two main camps exchanging insults and accusing each other of racism, sexism, Islamophobia or having won illegitimately. The third who hate both sides equally are all too happy to air their feelings and exasperation, creating more division. Soon enough, the media is grouped firmly into camps — making it easy for tech companies to create self-perpetuating loops of news for people.
People also feel so strongly about their side of the argument that they join parties, shown by the recent uptrend in membership, especially of the most extreme and populist parties.
This division soon seeps across borders — with rifts emerging between the UK and the EU, NATO and the US, Canada and Saudi Arabia. The populists and strongmen in charge of their countries promise radical foreign policy shifts. For some, this is leniency towards Russia (which Salvini supports in Italy); for others, this is the destruction of western institutions, such as the EU and NATO.
For Donald Trump, it’s both.
This sows the seed of chaos in the western world, allowing Russia to focus on completing its goals, such as militarisation of the Arctic, almost unopposed by the in-fighting West. Coupled with the undermining of democracy by Russia, with election meddling and collusion with particular candidates, this is a pernicious force.
At present, we are half-way between the point we need to work towards, peace and cooperation, and the point we’re heading to, complete chaos and disorganisation. If we can’t soon reverse the process, Russia will be completely free to take Crimea, as well as many of the former Soviet states across Europe and Asia.
Perhaps most worryingly though, Russia is building its expertise in destroying democracy. They may, sooner rather than later, be able to essentially hand-pick foreign leaders with ease, taking advantage of an incredibly disillusioned electorate.
However, that’s the Doomsday scenario. We needn’t reach that stage, but if we do nothing and continue to be at odds with each other, domestically and internationally, we will get to it.
In order to stop and reverse the process, we first need tech companies to diversify the news they feed us. If Facebook, Twitter, and Google can build algorithms to ensure a balanced news diet, then there will be hope of emerging from our self-perpetuating loops. As the electorate becomes more moderate, politicians will step up who advocate unity and centre-ground policies.
We also need, however, not just shifting political dynamics, but also a recognition that we have allowed ourselves to become divided by Russia’s tactics. If this is achieved, then the chances of staving off Putin’s influence in the West will receive a huge boost. With this recognition, we will be able to not just enjoy temporary refuge from this Russian strategy, but permanent shielding — those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it and all that.
So remember that, whatever your political views are, division is what Putin wants, and if you fuel the fire, then you’re only strengthening the strings by which he manipulates us.