Ukraine is the world’s first major “troll power” war
A new type of warfare exploits divided politics in America and the West
Will Russian President Vladimir Putin send troops into Ukraine? That’s been the central question looming over the world for the past several weeks. Every move he makes, every step he takes, every breath he takes, we’ll be watching him. That’s kind of the main point.
Seizing the global spotlight and keeping the world guessing has been a key part of Putin’s modus operandi for the last two decades. It’s how a declining power like Russia can continue to punch far about its weight in an international system that’s been changing at a rapid pace for years.
Today’s news headline that Putin will “personally oversee” large military exercises involving Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal this weekend seems both serious but also a desperate attempt to grab attention and get people worried. What will he do next, people will ask? You may even find yourself talking about it over lunch with friends, sort of like anything former U.S. President Donald Trump does to cause controversy.
The uncertainty is a key part of Putin’s strategy itself, one deliberately aimed at confusing and dividing his opponents inside Ukraine, across Europe, and even inside America too.
Russia, the world’s preeminent troll power
Take, for example, the differing information from earlier this week about whether Russia was withdrawing troops or sending more closer to Ukraine. Russia’s talk of a pullback was a head fake, U.S. officials said. Expect more of this.
Some call it hybrid warfare, blending conventional military moves, threats to use force, lies, disinformation, cyberattacks, and diplomacy. Another concept in the same general zip code is “sharp power,” the tools authoritarian actors deploy for political influence for the purpose of misleading or dividing public opinion in another country, or diverting attention from their own actions.
Another way to think about it is “troll power” – something that has become all-too-familiar to many people on the Internet and those who have been targeted by trolls in their work or life. People or groups punching far above the weight and importance in objective terms by simply attacking and undercutting their adversaries.
Trolling – defined as "to antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content” – has gone viral in the real world. In geopolitics, troll power is increasingly augmenting the two traditional forms of power – hard and soft power.
Hard power – the use of military force and threats of it to coerce others – remains the bluntest form of persuasion and change. Leading world powers continue to dedicate considerable resources to amassing weapons and building military capabilities. Soft power, the ability to attract or co-opt rivals by using diplomacy, culture, media, investment, and education to generate broader goodwill, remains a factor. Troll power is a form of negative soft power – one that imports the slashing mockery and grandstanding rhetorical gamesmanship seen in Twitter feuds into interactions between states and world leaders.
A wide range of actors use troll power around the world. In the Middle East, Iran is the dominant troll power – aided and abetted by a network of proxies in the regions and sympathizers inside debates about Iran in America and around the world. Terrorist networks use troll power to supplement the attacks they conduct – all aimed at undercutting the national or global order they oppose.
Russia is the world’s preeminent troll power today – it regularly uses disinformation to promote confusion and induce paralysis in open democratic societies. Troll power depends on an adversary getting caught flat-footed and being dizzying with confusion about the basic facts and reality of what’s actually happening.
A method that exploits divisions in Ukraine, Europe, and America
What’s going on in Ukraine right now and what will likely unfold next is very much a continuation of a longer competition that began nearly a decade ago, after Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine. The ongoing events there, combined with a series of tactics by Russia aimed at “softening up” a key center of gravity – public opinion in the West – has been going on for years. The direct interference in America’s elections in 2016 and its aftermath is one key part of it.
No matter what Putin decides to do and what plays out in the coming days, a key part of his approach is to use “troll power” to deliberately confuse and exploit divisions in open societies like America and its European allies. If Putin doesn’t invade, the crisis is likely to continue.
If he decides on a full invasion, the political response in America will likely be rancorous and divided – the foreign policy tribalism and divisions between and within the two political parties on key national security questions has become a mainstay in U.S. politics in recent years.
Putin’s actions may ultimately produce a “rally around the flag” approach, but the structure of politics and media debates in America these days incentivizes division rather than unity. Just look at this past week – Democrats and Republicans alike expressed alarm about the seriousness of the situation in Ukraine, and many vowed to support sanctions. But true to form, Congress couldn’t build a consensus and ultimately punted on any action for now.
The divisions in this sanctions debate were driven by many differences of views – but Russia watched the debate, mostly conducted open, carefully and it is likely to try to exploit these divisions to produce more confusion. The structure of social media and how it incentivizes discord will aid and abet Russia in the next stages of the conflict.
If an invasion happens, some Republicans will criticize Biden as weak no matter what; other Republicans, more sympathetic to Russia, will criticize Biden for overreaching in the world. Democrats will have similar internal divisions between centrists and those on the far left. Russia’s troll power machine of propaganda and disinformation will seek to further divide America and Europe.
The geopolitical costs of troll power
Troll power seeks not to persuade or even coerce but to “own” and weaken political adversaries at home or abroad through verbal denigration designed to confuse, provoke, and divide them. Instead of enticing rivals to lean to some sort of alternative ideology or world view with positive soft power, Russia will continue to use troll power in efforts to gain advantage and compliance by knocking America and Europe off balance.
Trolling is not a strategy. It is a tactic, like terrorism or dive bombing. Nor is it new – writers have used trolling as a tactic for centuries. But our networked age has put troll power on steroids – and more world leaders have brought troll power into the mainstream of geopolitics. Troll power’s effect is magnetic because it engages audiences and reaches them daily through multiple platforms: it taps deeply into the psychology and very identities of people.
Political leaders and countries increasingly use troll power to block or tear down policy initiatives and stymie policies they oppose. Taken together, these actions disrupt the status quo and have the potential to shift power balances over time. But as former House Speaker Sam Rayburn once said, “Any jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” In many ways American domestic politics has devolved into one big trolling and counter-trolling campaign, but the focus in this article is on the world.
The geopolitical costs of troll power have been high. It actively sows divisions, creates barriers, and nurtures a nasty, anarchic environment that sees only bullies and victims instead of well-intentioned opponents who can work together to achieve results. In an international system increasingly defined by troll power, win-lose scenarios and costly miscalculations are more likely. The overuse of troll power erodes trust in institutions like the United Nations and others that serve as the bedrock of our democracy and the international order.
In geopolitics, a number of countries and non-state actors have been using troll power to intentionally spark chaos and misdirect. This upsets the traditional norms of diplomacy, aggravates tensions, triggers emotional responses, accelerates the media news cycle, and replaces informed publics with ones whipsawed and divided by exaggerations and outright lies. Russia will continue to use its troll power to erode the international order to its benefit, and whatever military actions it takes in Ukraine over the coming days and weeks will be supplemented with some form of its troll power.
Four shock absorbers to deal with Russia’s troll power
In an age when intentional disruption and misdirection dominate diplomacy and 24-hour news cycles, there are some shock absorbers to insulate the impact from Russia’s geopolitical trolling. The Biden administration is already deploying some good practices to blunt the effects of Russia’s use of troll power, but the battle will be ongoing. Here are four shock absorbers, best practices to anticipate and inoculate against the impact of Russia’s troll power:
1. Expose Russia’s lies and disinformation with facts. The Biden administration has been smart to call out Putin’s moves publicly. It has strategically used intelligence including satellite imagery to undercut Russia’s claims about its troop movements, and it has announced likely next steps by Russia in a possible campaign on Ukraine, an important step to undercut the active misinformation but Russian official sources and its networks. It needs to continue doing this.
2. Stay ahead of the curve. Just as important as exposing Russian deception with the facts is doing so before Moscow can inject its lies into the information bloodstream. If political leaders and ordinary citizens expect Russia to, say, use false claims of Ukrainian atrocities as a pretext for invasion, then they’re less likely to swallow Russian propaganda campaigns when they do occur. The Biden administration has done an admirable job inoculating the public against the likely vectors for Russian disinformation, and it should not let up the pressure any time soon.
Don’t feed Russia’s trolling campaigns by directly responding to its ridiculous accusations and baseless claims. Trolls aim to burn up opponents’ energy and distract and misdirect attention from themselves and their own vulnerabilities. Targets of troll powers often end up indulging in simplistic trolling themselves. But replicating troll behavior is the quickest way to normalize their destructive practices – and it takes their bait. Responding to trolling dedicates far too much energy to what are ultimately distractions in tackling the world’s major challenges.
3. Keep focused on a proactive message and alternative idea that builds new coalitions at home and abroad. The best way to counter troll power is to build broader coalitions that can resist troll powers. Opposing and reacting to Russia’s troll power are necessary steps to open the space to thwart Putin’s agenda, but it can’t be reactive.
Our collective addiction to trolling makes us lazy. It is far easier to tear down an idea or a country that is an adversary, but it’s much harder to offer constructive criticism or an alternative that persuades opponents and skeptics.
We need a more focused effort to offer a contrasting alternative to the trolls that appeals to broader coalitions. In the current crisis, NATO has played an important role in keeping America and its allies on the same page, and the Biden administration deserves credit for rallying the alliance against Russian attempts to split it.
4. Be disciplined in our own debates by avoiding arguments that parrot Putin’s propaganda.
Have you noticed the overlap between what Russian officials say and some political and foreign policy voices in America – there’s a reason for that. Some people, still largely on the fringes of America’s foreign policy debate, operate as echo chambers for Putin, usually inadvertently and unintentionally. It’s mostly the product of low-quality thinking about the world and the counterproductive mode of making all national security questions a partisan wedge issue, something we’ve seen on other issues like the Israeli-Palestinian question and Iran.
The excessive use of troll power in open democracies like America’s is giving the upper hand to more authoritarian countries like Russia. The Biden administration has done a fairly strong job on Ukraine in putting diplomacy first but backing it with military and economic moves. But what’s happening in 2022 is just the continuation of something that began a while ago and it’s not likely to end anytime soon.