NEWSWATCH: “External Interference Narratives in Russian and U.S. Politics: Conspiracy Theorizing Meets Whataboutism” [Excerpt]

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(PONARS Eurasia – – Serghei Golunov – February 2018)

Serghei Golunov is Professor at the Center for Asia-Pacific Future Studies at Kyushu University, Japan.

[Full text]

(PONARS Policy Memo) Conspiracy theories about covert external interference play significant roles in the political discourses of many countries worldwide. In Russia, conspiracy theorizing about U.S. clandestine interference is a long-time, long-term political trend currently being used to increase the legitimacy of President Vladimir Putin. In the United States, conspiracy theorizing framing Russia as a threat has been marginal throughout most of the post-Cold War period. However, since the recent U.S. presidential election, opponents of President Donald Trump have been framing Russian interference as a threat to the U.S. political system.

There is a danger of analysts and researchers being affected by political bias when sorting conspiracy theories into those that are justifiable (“good/warranted”) and those that are unsound (“bad/unwarranted”). I suggest that a better scholarly method is to distinguish between “short-term/tactical” and “long-term/strategic” conspiracies, especially when it comes to the many theories being peddled across the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. In this regard, it is more likely that Russia might have made a recent tactical conspiratorial effort against the United States (to favor a preferred presidential candidate) than that it engaged in an outsized strategic conspiracy (to control the U.S. government)….

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Conspiracy theories do not play equivalent roles in U.S. and Russian politics. In both countries, conspiracy theorizing has strong historical roots and is often used to delegitimize political opponents. In Russia, these functions are more prominent- conspiracy theorizing about U.S. clandestine involvement in domestic affairs is heavily used by the Russian regime and its media outlets. In terms of structure, there are some important differences between Russian and U.S. conspiracy narratives. Russian narratives emphasize alleged American subversive networking activities and financial support for oppositionists and NGOs. In the United States, theories focus on Trump-Russia connections, hacking attacks, and social media information warfare. Both countries have made similar accusations, that each has conducted types of digital and psychological warfare on the other.

Future comparative research on conspiracy theorizing in Russia and the United States could separate the mutual accusations of context-specific espionage and hacking (related directly to election cycles) from those that position the opposite party as executing nefarious long-term plans meant to subdue an adversary.

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