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Saturday, December 09, 2017
In this week's roundup of interesting online reads, we find out how the election meddling campaign actually was aimed at something else, and consider why Russians are such enduring villains.
New details continue to come to light in the Russian election meddling story. This week Bloomberg ran an interesting story detailing how IRA – the now infamous “troll farm” in St. Petersburg set up dozens of fake American news sites that had over half-a-million followers. And, the internet being what it was, those stories got shared and reshared and retweeted and reshared by over 100 real news outlets.
These accounts were some of the now 2752 Twitter counts that have since been suspended for their IRA ties. Many of them were micro-targeted at local communities.
They targeted a diverse set of regions across the political spectrum, including Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Several of the accounts were impersonating local news outlets in swing states, like @TodayPittsburgh, @TodayMiami and @TodayCincinnati.
The accounts were all over the map, from @BlackNewsOutlet an account focused on Black Lives Matter, to @tpartynews that was vehemently anti-Obama, to @Ten_GOP that was staunchly conservative and posed as a patriotic American. What they shared was a penchant for stirring the pot, roiling up readers with news both real and fake.
Researchers have concluded that many of the IRA-linked accounts were created to sow social discord, by trying to "put left-wing people further to the left and right-wing people further to the right," said Ben Nimmo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Digital Forensic Research Lab. "It's that attempt to amplify the differences in society."
And then there were, Twitter estimates:
more than 36,000 Russian-linked accounts generated about 1.4 million automated, election-related Tweets.
But what is interesting is this:
Nimmo says these news imposter accounts may have been created for an operation that never happened. A U.S. intelligence report concluded that the Russian government was expecting Hillary Clinton to win the election and were prepared to call into question the validity of the results. Pro-Kremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP on election night in anticipation of her victory, according to the report. These news imposter accounts could have aided those efforts to undermine the election results by promoting certain hashtags and topics like “voter fraud” or “rigged election." By having a network of local news accounts across the country, the Kremlin would be able to distribute propaganda at scale that could galvanize local populations to protest, according to Nimmo.
And the IRA was playing a long game. Most of the Twitter accounts were set up a year before the 2016 election.
While the IRA/meddling news is certainly real, one can’t help wondering why it is that Americans seem to so love having a Russia arch enemy. In a gem of an article by Jessica Goldstein on ThinkProgress this past spring (well before all the election meddling came to light), the author explores why “We don’t really want to live in a world without Russian villains.”
From Rocky and Bullwinkle (1959) to the current The Americans (2013), Goldstein argues, “No villain has endured in our cinematic imagination quite like the Russian.” Nazis and terrorists have come and gone, but the Russians keep coming back...
The classic Russian villain, according to Robert Thompson of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, is:
Humorless, cold. Overly, ruthlessly logical. Robotic. A really thick accent.
(Which, as any Russophile who has visited Russia will tell you, is not what your average Russian is like, except maybe for the accent. But it may be what certain members of Russian “security organs” are like...)
And, Thompson says, Hollywood has become a bit dependent on this villain:
“We’ve got this tradition of a certain type of storytelling,” and traditions are not so easily changed. To eliminate the Soviet enemy from our screens “would be like saying to a romantic comedy writer, ‘People can’t meet in a cute way anymore.’”
Nina Khrushcheva, the Soviet leader’s great-granddaughter and a professor, adds: “Russia is the basic reference of badness at all times.”
For The Americans’ co-executive producer Joel Fields, all of this is rooted in the fact that:
there’s really one country that we as Americans have felt existentially threatened by, and that’s the Russians.
Yet Khrushcheva feels that
Russia was a perfect enemy to have because it wasn’t really scary like the Chinese, which is not only politically incorrect but because of American debt, and it’s a rising power that could replace the United States in leadership, and it’s a scary notion. And there’s a whole Islamic fundamentalist or [Middle Eastern terrorist], however people want to portray it, it is also scary, and it’s politically incorrect as well.
In agreement, Thompson points out that there is a certain racial reality about Russian villains and Hollywood: Russians are white.
You can give juicy antagonist roles to the same old actors that are out there and you don’t have to break any of those kinds of [casting] traditions... There are probably a lot of socially conscious people out there who would be more comfortable making a movie with white actor bad guys as Russians than they would be making yet another movie where the bad guys are terrorists and brown people are starring in it.
Joe Weisberg, the other producer of The Americans, agrees:
I think [the Russian villain] has endured in part because Americans are able to use Russian enemy stereotypes without fearing that they’re treading into racist territory
And, as Khrushcheva adds:
In defense of Hollywood, Russians are also easy to portray as villains. It’s not like their behavior is helping much.
In the end, The Americans producers, Khrushcheva, and author Goldstein agree that the villains Hollywood created tell us perhaps more about ourselves than they do about Russians:
we invented the bad we needed to oppose in order to believe in our own inherent goodness...
Why do Americans so consistently imagine Russian villains as uptight, militant, leg-breaking thugs who follow orders without question? Probably because that’s the antithesis of what America likes to imagine its own heroes to be: Scrappy, jocular good guys, morally correct cowboys who occasionally break the rules but are so charming and suave while doing so you can’t begrudge their mischief. Americans believed our pop cultural Russian enemy into being to justify and maintain our fantasies about ourselves.
When you're a Soviet dictator, it's rare that you get the chance to tour the US, visiting movie sets, meat freezers, and steel mills, being featured on TV, and laughing at angry farmers. Nikita Khrushchev got that chance 55 years ago. And he made the most of it.