Surviving Russophobia

Panicking about Russia is an American tradition. For most of the last century, there was always a political faction convinced that devious Russkies were – with the help of useful idiots within our borders – on the verge of destroying the nation. Fighting the Cold War was arguably the postwar conservative movement’s raison dêtre. Hatred of the Soviet Union was the most important unifying factor in a movement rife with contradictory impulses.

Today, anxiety about the Russians is predominantly found on the political left, thanks to the dubious claim that President Trump colluded with the Kremlin to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. Conservatives during the Cold War were undoubtedly correct about the U.S.S.R.’s malign intentions. Today’s progressives are similarly right about Vladimir Putin’s desire to weaken the United States.

The greater question, then and now, is how much of a threat does Russia really represent, and how should the U.S. respond? Was there ever any real danger that the Soviet Union would conquer the world, as conservatives such as James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers argued? Was the threat so dire as to warrant William F. Buckley’s call for “a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores”? Today, can Vladimir Putin really manipulate Western democracies into placing his puppets in positions of power? If so, how much new power should we hand tech companies and the Pentagon to neutralize this threat?

In his new book, Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, and Fake News, Clint Watts argues that contemporary fears about Russia are well justified. He makes one of the stronger cases for this position that I have seen to date. I was nonetheless unpersuaded. The book’s discussions on terrorism and social media, however, partially mitigates its other shortcomings. Watts has an enjoyable writing style, often coming across as an irreverent rebel by disposition. Messing with the Enemy has genuinely funny moments. It is also an effortless read, easy to complete over an afternoon. However, its style and its content often feel at odds. At its core, Messing with the Enemy is a full-throated defense of the Beltway establishment.

Watts explains how different bad actors make use of the Internet, especially social media. He accurately notes the many dangers lurking in this new digital ecosphere. Beyond discussing the most alarming developments in this arena (terrorist recruitment on Twitter, for example), Watts also provides practical advice for readers. His recommendations for evaluating information on social media and elsewhere are sound.

The chapters on ISIS and similar terrorist organizations are the book’s strongest element. Watts explains how social media broke al-Qaeda’s near monopoly on global Islamist terror. Osama bin Laden’s organization, while always violent, nonetheless believed it was extremely important to place the movement on solid theological ground. Bin Laden’s VHS propaganda tapes were boring, cheap, and uninspiring. They were also difficult to disseminate. The rise of online message boards and social media changed the terrorism game.

The Internet created a new free market for jihadist ideologues, and it turned out that there was greater demand for beheading videos than an old man’s lectures on Qur’anic exegesis. ISIS rose in large part because of its adept use of free or cheap online resources, spreading its message farther and with greater ease than previously possible. Social media also allowed propogandists easy access to their audience. Jihadis on the front line could instantaneously interact with their growing fan base in Western countries.

This new brand of terrorist outreach proved compelling, as foreign fighters began pouring into the so-called Islamic State. These brash, ignorant, and ultra-violent e-celebs, who for a time conquered and controlled a large swath of Iraq and Syria, made the previous iteration of the global jihad movement look restrained by comparison.

Watts’ description of the rise of ISIS is not new. Other books, such as ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berber, tell a similar story. Watts’ chapters on the subject are nonetheless fascinating because of the personal elements he includes. Rather than simply observe terrorists’ online chatter, Watts actively engaged with them on Twitter. His description of his very public online correspondence with Omar Hammani makes the book worth reading.

The chapters on Russia were less compelling, however. Watts is annoyed that his critics – such as Matt Taibbi and Glenn Greenwald – accuse him of McCarthyism. I think these critics have a point. Russia probably does seek to weaken America, but Watts does not provide enough evidence to justify the collective dread he seeks to inspire.

Messing with the Enemy’s failure to put Russian social media activity in greater specified context of what it really means for American politics is one of the book’s most important shortcomings. I do not question that Russia is guilty of every one of Watts’ accusations. I do question whether the entire Russian social media operation has any discernable impact on American life. If Watts is correct, Americans are easily manipulated by a few dozen Kremlin trolls and some automated Twitter accounts. In contrast, he notes that U.S. intelligence agencies are comically inept at influencing world opinion – which seems to undermine his argument that we should trust established experts. Watts provides some numbers regarding Russia’s political ad purchases on social media. For example, he noted that Russia spent more than $100,000 on Facebook ads in 2016. He fails to note what a paltry sum this is when compared to the total number of political ads purchased that election season. The Trump and Clinton campaigns spent more than $80 million on their Facebook ads. This, combined with the scant evidence that such advertisements change anyone’s political views or behaviors, makes me doubt they mattered at all. Similarly, Russian troll farms are unquestionably real. Unfortunately, America has far more homegrown trolls, working for free and far more effectively than the ham-fisted Russian Twitter accounts. We do not need to look abroad to explain the toxicity of social media.

To make his case that Russia provided Trump the presidency, Watts primarily leans on the fact that Wisconsin and Michigan were both extremely close elections, and had they gone the other way, Clinton would have won. Thus if Russia managed to sway even a tiny percentage of the vote in those states (something he does not prove), it follows that Russia changed the outcome. That is true enough, but it is also true that, in a sufficiently close election, one could describe almost anything as definitive.

Watts notes with alarm that many of the Alt-Right white nationalists that descended on Charlottesville, VA in 2017 shouted pro-Russian slogans. He suggested that the extreme right’s love of Russia is new and the result of Russian propaganda: “Imagining a time during the Cold War when white men might have gathered to chant, ‘The Soviet Union is our friend’ seems impossible.” However, a segment of U.S. white nationalism has long been fascinated with Russia, hoping it will undermine Western liberalism. This long precedes Putin, and requires no promoting on Russia’s part. I have seen no compelling evidence suggesting material Russian support for the Alt-Right or its recent ideological predecessors. Francis Parker Yockey, arguably the father of postwar white nationalism, openly yearned for a Soviet victory in the Cold War, saying such an outcome would be better for the white race. As was the case then, the contemporary extreme right developed fond feelings for Russia without foreign encouragement. Messing with the Enemy will mostly appeal to progressive readers, given Watts’ unambiguous loathing for President Trump. Many of his arguments should nonetheless interest conservatives. He laments the decline of real-world community and the trend toward social atomization, citing Tocqueville. The chapter on this subject is reminiscent of Robert Nisbet’s work on the unfortunate decline of mediating institutions between the individual and the state.

Watts’ arguments about what he calls “preference bubbles” are also worth considering. The new media landscape does make it too easy to ensconce ourselves in partisan echo chambers. The proliferation of media choices allows each of us to choose information that confirms our prejudices. At its extremes, this process allows us to live in what are essentially separate realities.

Readers would be wise to follow Watts’ advice on how to detect “fake news.” Where Watts offered policy suggestions, however, I had some misgivings. I am uncomfortable with the new limitations Watts wishes to place on social media. For example, he thinks Twitter should stop allowing anonymous accounts. This would undoubtedly hinder Russian bots. It would also destroy Twitter’s utility to dissident movements organizing against oppressive governments.

Watts also calls for an “Information Consumer Reports,” a nongovernmental agency that will rate news outlet trustworthiness. In theory, this sounds like a good idea. In practice, I suspect it will be very difficult to create a non-partisan, non-ideological organization of this type. Even if it works exactly as promised, such an organization will nonetheless face incessant accusations of bias.

Despite his seeming irreverence and trollish sensibilities, Watts is ultimately loyal to the mainstream DC establishment. According to Watts, it was not just unfair when Trump called the Beltway a “swamp,” it was “the strongest anti-intellectual current in American history.” That is a rather extreme statement, given this nation’s many preposterous moments of collective hysteria.

At the same time, Watts hardly provides a reassuring picture of Pentagon experts and the many consulting firms they employ. If Watts’ depiction is accurate, despite being lavished with untold billions, these supposedly patriotic professionals are consistently outmaneuvered at every turn by a handful of Russian trolls operating on a shoestring budget. The experts he exhorts us to trust are not paragons of competence, according to his own words.

Watts tries to resolve this seeming contradiction by implying that America is disadvantaged by our virtuous approach to foreign affairs. Watts implies that, unlike Russia, the U.S. would never attempt to manipulate other democracies. This is just wrong. The U.S. regularly tries to influence election outcomes beyond its borders. Aside from bureaucratic inefficiency, Watts suggests America’s honesty and commitment to fair play is the nation’s chief disadvantage. Watts’ sunny depiction of America’s foreign policy idealism would make the most ardent Bush-era neoconservative blush.

Messing with the Enemy provides an entertaining and occasionally enlightening snapshot of the weird and dangerous contemporary social media landscape. Yet Watts’ Russophobia often overshadows the book’s virtues. Watts may want readers to break free from their preference bubbles, but the work’s copious use of anti-Trump vitriol will limit his audience to those already convinced of his premises.