Disinformation and the Decay of Nations

To deal with the rising Nationalist Internationale, we are first going to have to reimagine how we engage with each other.

Peter Pomerantsev

Discord is a niche social media platform used by the video gaming community to organize strategies for competing in massive multiplayer online worlds. It has also been used by the extreme Right to plan international revolution. Extremist discussions on Discord are hard to penetrate. During September’s German election, for example, anyone wanting to join the Infokrieg or Reconquista Germanica groups was vetted through several layers of interviews and social media background checks to weed out spies from true believers. Researchers from the counter-extremism NGO Institute for Strategic Dialogue managed to infiltrate the sites however, and, as their report (which is to be released next week) details, they discovered an impressive, international psy-ops operation aimed at helping the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) make it into the Bundestag for the first time.

The 5,000 members of Reconquista Germanica, for example, were split into military-style groups, with dedicated chat-rooms managing the “radar station”, “daily orders” and “meme workshops.” There is even a chat-room to prepare for “Day X”, the full breakdown of public order. Tactics were swapped between European and U.S. actors, with lessons passed on from every election in the United States, France, and Holland. Members use special bots to spam the feeds of centrist or leftist politicians. They are given instructions on how to create fake accounts and tweet from multiple places simultaneously to hijack hashtags, and how to create parody accounts to confuse their opponents. Daily briefings used sophisticated Twitter analytics to measure success and instruct how to attack mainstream parties. Ultimately groups like Reconquista Germanica helped the AfD dominate social media discussion. On September 9, for example, seven of the hashtags defined by Reconquista reached the top 20 trending hashtags in Germany. The party eventually made it into Bundestag with an unprecedented 13% of the vote.

What is so striking about this, and other far-right operations, argue the ISD authors, is how social media has rebooted the far Right by allowing previously atomized groups to come together across borders. A significant player in this new Nationalist Internationale is Russia. As a monitoring project at the London School of Economics, Arena Programme, showed, German-language Kremlin media house Sputnik was strongly biased towards the AfD in the run-up to the election. In July and August, Sputnik featured the AfD more than any other party, the only German political group to be treated positively. This material was then retweeted by scores of pro-AfD accounts.

Meanwhile, on alternative social media platforms like Gab.ai, far-right memes, conspiracy theories and Kremlin sources form a (mis)information ecology cut off from the rest of society. The significance of the relationship is less about how big the Kremlin media audience is (compared to mainstream media it is tiny), but how deeply it is embedded in a mutually beneficial relationship with the new Right. This symbiosis in turn allows the Kremlin to push its own agendas in this increasingly influential community. In the process of reporting on and unmasking a bot network based in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod spreading the sort of supposedly amusing AfD memes developed in groups like Reconquista Germanica, Buzfeed interviewed its owner; he said that the AfD did not need to pay for his network’s services, as it was for “mutual benefit.”

Rather than a game of puppeteers and marionettes, the relationship between the Russian regime and the far Right is closer to a dance—what Anton Shekhovtsov calls a “Tango Noir” in his impressive and important recent book-length study of the subject. Shekhovtsov traces the relationship back to the 1930s, when the Kremlin cooperated with the more socialist end of the National Socialists. There were contacts during the Cold War too, with the Soviets aiding and abetting neo-Nazi groups in West Germany so it could point and accuse the country of being the inheritors of Hitler’s Germany. The dance quickened after the end of the Cold War, when a whole range of Russian actors competed to bring the far Right into its networks. Shekhovtsov elegantly lays out the modus operandi of the relationship. The far Right offers the Kremlin its services as “election monitors” whenever Moscow needs an illegal referendum to legitimize its imperial adventures; in return the far Right get the occasional bit of funding and a regular supply of Kremlin media support.

What’s clear from Shekhovtsov’s study is that for the Kremlin, this relationship is less about ideological closeness and more about usefulness. At the same time as it works with the far Right, it also builds relationships with the far Left and international financial elites—the far Right’s sworn enemies. Moscow’s domestic politics, which stress the multi-ethnic, multi-religious nature of Russia, and where Islamist politicians are among Putin’s closest allies, would be an anathema to the Western far Right. Russian media regularly boast of defeating fascism in Ukraine in order to gin up support for their invasion with a domestic audience—all while supporting actual fascists in the West.

This multi-faced policy is enhanced by the fractured nature of digital and social media: the Kremlin can target different audiences with different messages. On a smaller scale, the leaders of the new Nationalist Internationale are doing the same to unite their own fractured movement. Think of a set of kaleidoscopic fractals opening up into another set of fractals as you approach it. When the ISD authors took a microscope to the planning behind the recent “Unite the Right” riots in Charlottesville, they found the organizers used different messages to reach out to different groups, a disparate bunch which included, inter alia, anti-Marxists, anti-Islamic bigots, ethnic nationalists, and disgruntled cranky culture warriors.

As one thinks about strategies to counter this threat, it’s important to keep these cleavages in mind. There are many divisions to explore. U.S. alt-right activists indulge in anti-Semitism, which Austrian identitarians are still worried to touch; the misogyny of the younger alt-right is unpopular among the older extreme Right; cultural racists disagree with biological racists; and nationalist libertarians are unlikely to agree with national socialists for long.

The Kremlin, as we have noted, is ideologically pantheistic. And therein lies its weakness. In order to exploit it, policy-makers, media and civil society will have to work across borders. In Germany, for instance, countering the AfD will mean not merely thinking about the local context which enabled them, but also understanding and undermining the emerging Nationalist Internationale which supports them. Extreme nationalists have thus far used the transnational potential of online networks more effectively than the “global elites” they attack.

This in turn reveals another paradox: the cohesion of nations as we know them has thus far depended on a limited amount of media which contribute towards an often quarrelsome but at the end of the day mutual public space. The new digital ultra-nationalists, however, capitalize on the sprawl of new media echo chambers, which spread like digital pinmold across the decaying fruit of nations, decomposing the wholeness of the very national entities they claim to champion. In dealing with the Nationalist Internationale, therefore, we are going to have to reimagine how we engage with each other in a modern media space where concepts we have previously taken for granted, such as “truth” and “authority”, are increasingly difficult to agree upon. The fight against “disinformation” is also a fight to ensure that deliberative democracy can continue to thrive into the twenty-first century. The first step is to tap into the data tools which the extreme nationalists are using so effectively: given the knowledge data can give us about what drives and motivates publics, how can we use it to rebuild public space rather than inspire hatred?

First published in The American Interest