Future Tense

Why Russia Is Using the Internet to Undermine Western Democracy

Powerful Russians were terrified by the internet in 2011. Now they’ve made sure we are, too.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting to discuss the Ukrainian peace process at the German federal Chancellery on October 19, 2016 in Berlin, Germany.
To Putin’s ex-KGB mindset, there’s no such thing as spontaneous, popular protest—someone’s always pulling the strings. Above, Vladimir Putin in Berlin on Oct. 19.

Adam Berry/Getty Images

At a recent international meeting on internet freedom and democracy, one of the chairs made an unusual request: He asked contributors to share only research results, not anecdotes. I was puzzled—why did this need to be said? The couple of hundred attendees were policy wonks and government ministers. Politicians’ talking points and newspaper editorials might base their calls to action on horror stories, but the professionals look for the data, right?

Half an hour later, a panel opened up to the audience for questions, and then I understood. A woman from an “official” Russian nongovernmental organization started to speak. Though her English was excellent, her statement-as-a-question was pretty incoherent. We can’t have unfettered internet freedom, she said, because just a few months ago, a boy in central Russia got hooked on an online game. When his parents cut off his access, he tried to kill them. I think she said one of them survived. It was all a bit emotional and confusing. But her point was as clear as it seemed ridiculous: The state must control the internet to stop boys in central Russia from stabbing their parents with kitchen knives.

Now, I live in the United Kingdom, where the state does more surveillance than any other functioning democracy and requires extra-legal and untransparent censorship by internet service providers (because “Won’t somebody think of the children?”). But even to me, this statement—at an international meeting, no less—sounded borderline unhinged. I wasn’t the only one. Around the room, people smirked as they fiddled with their interpretation headsets. A few raised eyebrows and exchanged knowing smiles. Chatting to a European diplomat afterward, I asked what had just happened. “Oh, it’s just what they do now,” he said. He had recently worked at the U.N. in New York and observed Russia’s new M.O.: tell scary stories and wreck the chance of a reasonable discussion. Trolling, basically. Gesturing around at the room of people mostly from Europe and countries on Europe’s periphery, he said, “They don’t want this kind of thing to work.”

By “this kind of thing,” he meant the multistakeholder internet governance model, which brings together governments, business people, civil society, activists, and internet engineers. Russia’s discomfort with it is well-known. Along with China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, Russia has long lobbied at the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union to keep decision-making to governments.

But as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, U.S. foreign policy on the internet hasn’t played so well abroad, either. Internet Freedom™ can sound like just another way to lock in U.S. tech firms’ first-mover advantage and de facto monopolies. American soft power seems anything but benign to leaders of autocracies. To them, the much-touted ability of tech giants like Twitter and Facebook to facilitate revolutions looks like deliberate sedition by a foreign power.

Russia’s leaders already see Western conspiracy everywhere: the Orange Revolution, the Arab Spring, the entire internet. All of these play out in Moscow as plots by the U.S. and its allies to ensure the world order protects only Western values and therefore Western interests. And we play right into their hands, saying the internet is a samizdat—the famously hand-copied literature of opposition to Soviet rule—and claiming the Che Guevara of the 21st-century is a network. (And rather ahistorically, too, given the United States’ violent antipathy to Guevara’s aims.)

Does the internet drive people-powered revolutions? Maybe. It’s complicated. But 2011 began with the Arab Spring chasing out the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt, and ended with Moscow’s middle classes taking to the streets in Facebook-organized protests against electoral corruption. Facebook did more than just make it easier to organize; in a year of popular revolution, it let some Russians feel they were part of something bigger, that they had a chance. It was a profound shock to Putin’s government. To Putin’s ex-KGB mindset, there is no such thing as spontaneous, popular protest. In his world, power is vertical. Someone is always pulling the strings. So the Russian state married its existential pessimism to the West’s internet cheerleading. The internet had to be brought under control.

The Red Web, by Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan, shows that before 2012, Russian internet censorship was surprisingly decentralized and inconsistent. It took the shock of the short-lived middle class revolt for Russia to really go on the offensive. Opposition websites were hit with powerful and coordinated distributed denial of service attacks, trolling, and disinformation. Deluged with pro-government propaganda, local news platforms basically gave up trying to separate fact from political fiction. The sheer volume of fake news, plus its sophistication, meant algorithms could no longer tell the difference. (To be fair, humans—even those in democracies—have trouble sorting fake news from real, too.)

In 2012, new censorship measures were brought in, using technologies that indiscriminately block addresses and inspect each packet of data. The official rationale? “To protect the children.” Data localization rules were also introduced, requiring data about Russian citizens to be stored on servers physically located in Russia. The official rationale? To protect Russians against American surveillance, post-Snowden. The internet in Russia was starting to come under control, but for a state that believed it was facing an existential threat, it wasn’t enough.

Russia turned its attention abroad. At a 2012 U.N. meeting to create binding international telecommunications rules, Russia and Iran lobbied hard to increase the role of states in internet governance. A last-minute procedural U-turn caused most Western countries to walk out. The chance for global agreement was dead. While the authoritarian states failed in their high-profile U.N. efforts, they continue to make steady progress in standardization study groups where real work gets done. But it still wasn’t enough.

The Russian state lacks the discipline and capacity of the Chinese state. It is too insecure to think long-term, as the Communist Party of China does. Nor does Russia offer a lucrative enough market to set its own terms of engagement with foreign firms. So Russia can’t assume into itself the parts of the internet it wants (economic growth) and isolate and expel the parts it rejects (accelerated political change). But the internet, with its politically and economically disruptive power, remains both a symbol and a channel of Western values and interests. A purely defensive Russian response was never going to be enough.

So Russia did the only thing it could: It took the West’s proudest, strongest, most transformational tool and helped to turn it against us. Internet jiujitsu, in the form of information war (what we used to call propaganda) and cyberwar (plain old hacking and sabotage), turned the energy of the networks against their creators.

Russia almost certainly hacked the computers of U.S. election officials and the Democratic National Committee, and funneled its damning findings through willing stooges. This is not a fringe view. We still don’t know whether the U.S. president-elect shares more with Vladimir Putin than just an onanistic cult of toxic masculinity. Links between the U.S. right and the Kremlin are murky, though I expect more information will emerge. But even if we find proof, millions of Americans will simply refuse to believe it. Homegrown propaganda sites will amplify and disseminate disinformation, as they did all through the U.S. election. Russia’s adversary during the U.S. presidential election was not Hillary Clinton but faith in the American electoral process.

Kremlin propaganda outfits like RT and Sputnik aggressively push a mix of news and conjecture whose aim is not to convince viewers that a particular narrative is true but rather that they live in a world where disinterested, objective fact does not, indeed cannot exist. Their stories are disseminated further by right-wing populists around Europe. The Kremlin has funded far-right partiesgrowth across Europe, just as the Soviet Union funded far-left ones in the Cold War. But this time, the aim is not to create a new, socialist world order, but to destroy the possibility of any stable global order at all.

And the internet is key to that. As the internet’s democratization of speech cuts across traditional channels, more people’s views can be heard. But in a deluged ideas market, the law of supply and demand applies. Each view is worth less, and our ability to reflect and discriminate between them disappears. Hearing everyone’s opinions on everything all the time sums to a helpless sense that it’s all broken and no one can be trusted. We retreat further into our echo chambers where dissenting views become unknown unknowns. For Putin, this stuff is pure gold. The loss of civility and trust, and the radical flattening of political space, which the Kremlin so feared, turn out to be perfect for turning democracy against itself.

It can be insidious. The recent state-sponsored attempts on the Gmail accounts of well-known U.S. progressives likely isn’t aimed at finding out who they know and what they think—just reading the New York Times tells you that. It signals that our private talking and thinking spaces are no longer secure. Writers who believe they are listened to by even a “friendly” government will self-censor. When you can’t think, talk, and listen freely, you don’t act independently. Civil and political rights aren’t just nice to have; they’re the basis of a stable and scalable global order. (There are good historical reasons we codified all this stuff after World War II.)

What to do? Understand first that this is something we are largely doing to ourselves, and second that Russia’s profound cynicism is, paradoxically, utterly sincere. Yes, the Kremlin has remade the Russian internet in its own paranoid, hierarchical, and slightly shambolic image. Yes, the Russian government is aggressively spreading its nationalist and nihilist world view around the world. But ask yourself why, in little more than a decade, Russia switched from being an enthusiastic joiner of international institutions to a wrecker, why Russia become the ultimate online and offline troll.

We in the West ideologically and materially helped to wreck Russia’s post-Communist economy and make it a kleptocracy. People died. When Russia finally emerged from internal chaos, it was eager to take its place in the international order. But the credibility to Russians of that order was damaged by several events, including the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, the invasion of Iraq, and the U.K. and France’s 2011 adventure in Libya. As the West punishes Russia for invading its neighbors and slaughtering Syrian innocents, Russia might observe that we believe in rule-bound self-restraint only when it suits us. I am just as frightened and angry as anyone else that Russia is using the best things about democracy—openness and freedom of speech—to undermine it. But I can partly see why it acts as it does.

The tactic I saw being used by the “official NGO” woman was just a Kremlin technique, sure. But the anger and fear motivating her comment seemed genuine. Powerful Russians were terrified by the internet in 2011. Now they’ve made sure we are, too.

For people like me who work in internet governance, the biggest challenge of the next decade is no longer how to get the next billion online, or even how to curb the global monopolies taking over the traditional roles of government. It’s how to protect the most important part of our global critical infrastructure: democracy.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.