Putin Pushing on an Open Door

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. Prior to the conference, President Trump met with President Putin to discuss a variety of subjects including election meddling, the war in Syria and the North Korean threat. Photo by David Silpa/UPI

By ignoring Law-Breaking and Social Media Monopolies British and American Politicians are doing Putin’s work for him, argues Tamsin Shaw

Is it possible for a foreign adversary to undermine the political system of a powerful liberal democratic state? Putin’s Russia has been testing the hypothesis that it is with some tenacity, even beyond the 2016 US electoral interference that the intelligence community unanimously agreed Putin had ordered.

All Putin’s operatives really need to do is apply some pressure to existing weaknesses by finding where the rot has already set in.

In September 2018, the FBI discovered an operation called Project Lakhta, the stated aim of which was “to spread distrust towards candidates for political office and the political system in general.” And one of Putin’s senior advisers, Vladislav Surkov, wrote an op-ed just last month, insisting that Russian psychological operations run far deeper than electoral interference, they in fact are “meddling in the brains” of foreign citizens and changing the way they think without their even knowing it.

This sounds far-fetched. It probably is. It also gives Russia too much credit in the weakening of liberal democratic institutions. All Putin’s operatives really need to do is apply some pressure to existing weaknesses by finding where the rot has already set in.

The last two weeks have shown us extraordinary evidence of that rot.

In the testimony of President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to the House Oversight Committee, we not only learned details of many possible crimes committed by the President, some of them in his bid to gain office, we also saw the House Republicans charged with questioning him fail to ask anything significant about Trump’s potential criminality.

In their lack of concern about the wrongdoings for which evidence had been presented and in their evident desire simply to protect their man, they failed to behave like responsible public officials ensuring the President was accountable before the rule of law.

Lawless Tech

File photo dated 25/03/18 of the Facebook logo. Facebook has admitted that it needs to do more to support the wellness of moderators who remove harmful content from the social network.

But a deeper, more detailed and more consequential set of revelations was quietly disclosed in February in a report commissioned by the British House of Commons, on “Disinformation and ‘Fake News’”. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by MP Damian Collins, discovered contempt for the rule of law at many different levels of society and government.

The committee heard that US firm, Palantir, probably the most powerful company in the world in that sector, was given access to their data.

Facebook, one of the platforms used to spread Russian propaganda in Britain’s EU Referendum, was found to have violated data protection laws and concealed business practices which, the committee suggested, might fall foul of the US Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. But they resisted scrutiny as much as possible and their CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, even when threatened with a subpoena failed to appear before the committee.

Lawlessness was also shown to be a very serious concern in the world of private national security contracting. SCL Group, and its partner company, Cambridge Analytica, in spite of having been entrusted previously with extremely sensitive government contracts, showed no proper regard for data protection laws. The committee heard that US firm, Palantir, probably the most powerful company in the world in that sector, was given access to their data.

Russian Interference

This is how foreign electoral interference undermines our political system; not by brainwashing the electorate but by exposing the self-interest of elected officials

Most significantly, British Prime Minister Theresa May, having accused Russia of meddling in elections and planting disinformation, has refused to establish an official government inquiry into this interference that would be comparable to Robert Mueller’s investigation as Special Counsel in the United States. In spite of clear evidence of attempted voter manipulation in the EU Referendum, by Russia and by members of the Vote Leave campaigns, she has dismissed out of hand the view that it affected the outcome.

This is how foreign electoral interference undermines our political system; not by brainwashing the electorate but by exposing the self-interest of elected officials who refuse to subject the political process to proper legal scrutiny.

The political parties who are the alleged beneficiaries of illegal activities, in the US and the UK, are failing to uphold the rule of law when they discourage nonpartisan inquiry.

Vladimir Putin’s annual news conference, December 20, 2018

Legitimacy and the Rule of Law

The difference between liberal democracy and crude majoritarianism or populism is that in the former the outvoted minority will freely accept electoral outcomes because they have faith in the fairness of the process and are guaranteed essential rights regardless of their minority status. The more illegality and corruption elected officials appear to get away with, the more this shared basis of trust breaks down.

If belief in the legitimacy of government is to be maintained it’s essential that any perceived improprieties, foreign or otherwise, for which there’s reasonable evidence, are properly and publicly examined.

The Republican Party in the United States and Theresa May’s government in Britain, along with the huge corporations that monopolize our social media and the private companies that employ our data to influence elections, in failing to support fully the rule of law on which liberal democracies rely, are spreading distrust in the political system.

They leave Vladimir Putin with very little work to do