Alex Stephenson argues the current obsession with Russian political interference is damaging to democracy
Last week the Electoral Commission began an investigation into potential Russian interference in the EU Referendum. This development is not necessarily a surprising one – there seems to be no recent crime or disappointment that cannot be pinned on the Russian bogeyman. Evidence, however, has not been forthcoming. That is not to say the Russians did not interfere. The abundance of Russian bots on Twitter, and the evident use of paid for ads on Facebook during the US election suggest that they are capable of interference. However, the fixation on Russia is distracting those defeated in recent votes from grasping why they lost the ideological battle. “Remainers” in the UK and Democrats in the US have found it more comforting to scapegoat someone else for their own shortcomings than perform the necessary post-mortem on their apparently out of date ideology.
As of yet, nothing has really been substantiated in regard to Russian tampering. We are aware that Facebook and Twitter are being questioned in the US on evidence of political interference, but we have yet to see any quantifiable measure of the impact this had (in the US). At home, we have not reached this stage. However, this has not stopped blind speculation. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle suggested the leak of the “Sex Spreadsheet” currently rocking Westminster was orchestrated by Putin, despite there being absolutely no supporting evidence. Mark Galeotti has gone so far as to claim Russian interference would “delegitimise the original [EU] vote”. This blind speculation is problematic in that it is preventing liberals from understanding where they went wrong- a failure to face up to facts that will ultimately make them even less electable.
Fundamentally, those fixated on the influence of Russia, currently trying to incite hysteria over any and every political scandal that occurs, will only want to see evidence of interference. The effects of this supposed interference are secondary, as seen in the fact all this analysis fails to mention the actual impact of Russian meddling, funding, or influence on the electorate. Beginning to debate its influence would open them up to the obvious point that the 58% in the North East who voted Leave did so because of immigration, economic uncertainty or issues regarding sovereignty- not because they are avid followers of Kremlin backed ‘Russia Today’ or on the instruction of a Twitter account. The idea Russia swung the referendum is completely unfounded, and ultimately does more damage than the supposed interference itself.
By allowing this “investigation” into foreign interference to take place at a partisan level, losers are prevented from accepting their ideological defeat. Ultimately, as long as those who are crying foul are focusing on, and blaming, the interference then they are not taking the time to understand why they lost the Referendum. That leaves political discourse void of a relative and relatable liberal voice and provides a scenario in which nationalism and populism can flourish. The interference has achieved its objective- not by changing the outcomes of elections, which would require power and influence far beyond what Russia has been accused of, but by disrupting the status quo and preventing liberal forces from understanding why they lost. The threat to our democracy lies in the opposition who, through a refusal to accept conventional wisdom no longer lies with them, find solace in blaming others instead of arguing their case to the electorate. In doing so, they further ensure their own oblivion.
Featured image: Vox