The ‘globalisation of political technology’ is the theme of a course I have been running at UCL SSEES for three years. Globalisation is easier to understand. In 2005 I wrote a book Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Former Soviet World looking at how ‘political technology’ worked in Russia and other post-Soviet states. Since then, many of its practices have spread. One 2020 report by the Oxford Internet Institute, for example, found ‘cyber troop activity’ in 81 countries; and that is just one type of ‘political technology’.
But what it is ‘political technology’? The term is common in Russia, but we don’t really use it in the West; although we are starting to use some associated terminology, like kompromat (‘compromising materials’). Political ‘technology’ is really political manipulation, normalised in Russia by the assumption that all politics is manipulation or realpolitik. My own definition would be ‘supply-side engineering of the political system’. And whether we use the term or not, this is now happening in the West. In Russia political parties are created by political technologists. In America parties are still independent, but are surrounded by a manipulative eco-system of Political Action Committees, dark money and astroturfing (the creation of fake grass roots campaigns or opinions).
So my take on Russia’s role in the 2016 American elections was that this was a globalisation moment. The Mueller Report didn’t look enough at the interaction between what the Russians were doing and what their American equivalents were already doing. Russian interference was effective precisely because it worked with the parts of America’s political eco-system that the Russians recognised, and where they could apply moves from the domestic Russian playbook – like artificial polarisation, particularly of racial politics, playing with the enemy, and playing with the enemy’s enemy, in particular efforts to get Hillary Clinton voters to defect to the Greens, or stay at home in the case of former Bernie Sanders voters.
American-style political technology already had a head-start. It didn’t metastasise from zero under Trump. But since 2016 Russia has been able to sit back. It doesn’t need to stir the pot. There is so much that is already toxic in American politics. Not that Russia is passive or absent: inflaming existing divisions is very much Russia’s modus operandi. Russia also played a part in Trump’s deflection strategy to shift blame on to Ukraine for election interference, and to collect kompromat on Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
But, just to take the most pertinent example, the campaign to create the myth of ‘voter fraud’ has been building up for years, propagated by think tanks and books, and disseminated online. It then morphed into #stopthesteal, which wasn’t just driven by Donald Trump’s former Twitter account, but, again, by a whole mediaverse of domestic American supporters, conspiracy entrepreneurs and online platforms.
‘Fake news’ or disinformation is not just about content; it is about the delivery systems for that content. Political manipulation is done by individuals, but is effective when it works through structures that have leverage. And these structures are proliferating globally. Not just the cyber troops mentioned at the start, although everyone seems to have a troll farm nowadays. One reason is new technology; though politics shapes technology as much as the other way around. Another reason is the increasing number of hybrid regimes, where political technology is most common. The definition of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ for example, is that the political ‘playing field is heavily skewed in favour of incumbents. Competition is thus real but unfair’. Political technology is what makes the competition unfair. But so-called ‘smart authoritarian’ regimes can use the same techniques too, albeit using a different palette. Many democracies have deteriorated on the supply-side; where so-called ‘disintermediation’, the decline of traditional institutions like political parties or the press, allows political technologists more freedom for political engineering. The purpose of the ‘Undermining Democracy’ course is for students to find global examples and develop comparative perspectives.
Written by Dr. Andrew Wilson
Dr. Andreew Wilson is a professor of Ukrainian Studies at UCL. As well as Ukraine, Andrew’s area of expertise is the comparative politics of democratisation in the post-Soviet states and political technology. He is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book Ukraine Crisis: What the West Needs to Know was published by Yale. His other works include Belarus: The Last European Dictatorship; The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation; Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and Virtual Politics: Faking Democracy in the Post-Soviet World.