The BBC reported last week that the Twitter campaigns for the so-called #Calexit and #Texit were orchestrated from Russia. Mashable joined in the coverage.
The claim is that a Russian troll-factory either initiated or supported and boosted Twitter campaigns for California and Texas secession from the United States in the wake of the 2016 presidential elections. The case is based on analysis of who drove the corresponding hashtags to the top, and on the story behind some pro-independence leaders. It is revealed that most Twitter accounts that used the hashtags, liked certain tweets, or republished them no longer exist, and, therefore, must be automated bots and fake accounts. At the same time, it is known that Louis Marinelli, who was the leader of the California independence movement, attended a conference in Russia and currently resides there.
The use of bots, fake accounts, and whole organizations that support someone’s agenda on social networks is no news. The Russian troll-factory just happens to be the most well-known one, while others may still remain undiscovered. There is absolutely no guarantee that some other governments do not use such tactics either domestically or internationally. Popular opinion is a very powerful weapon, and controlling the people’s mindset becomes unavoidable in the era of information wars.
But the reports that are published now cannot be taken independently of two key factors. One, Russia was not the founder of the secession movements around the world. Two, Russia does not care about secession as long as it does not happen on its own soil, and foreign secessions are used merely as a propaganda tool for domestic policing. Consequently, it is a bit far-fetched to assume that Russia is the real perpetrator of breaking other countries apart, as long as these countries are not former Soviet republics.
Besides, when media like The Atlantic write that “following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the organization [Yes California] has gone from an unknown fringe group to one discussed seriously in mainstream media”, they forget to add that this mainstream American media help transform fringe movements into anything bigger by pushing them towards the front pages and using those fringe groups in the same pile of the alleged Russian involvement in any shit that happens in the USA. Honestly, it looks the same as when the Russians joked about Obama peeing in their apartment buildings, mocking the popular Russian TV picture of America held responsible for all sorts of troubles. But when the Russians are joking, the Americans are serious — and that is somewhat awkward.
Yet, even those who are most loud in voicing their concerns about the Russian support for the US separatists have to admit that “these scattered American movements are not necessarily proactive agents working on behalf of Moscow’s direct interests”. After all, Moscow may have created secession-backing accounts on social networks, but secession movements were created in the USA and by American citizens.
Secession movements are homegrown
Louis Marinelli did spend a lot of time teaching English and studying in Russia, he does currently reside in Russia, he did attend the Dialogue of Nations conference in Russia. But Louis Marinelli is neither a Russian, nor did he start the whole Yes California campaign alone and from Russia — he did it while being in the United States, and he did it with many other supporters. Moreover, they were not the first in history to suggest California should either be confederated or independent, just like there had been several proposals for alternatively splitting the state into several states.
The California National Party was established in 2015, a year before the 2016 presidential elections. It is not alone, with the Alaskan Independence Party (founded in 1984), and the Hawaii Independence Party (founded in 2015) to name just a few. Even Puerto Rico has its own independence movement, which you would easily understand with Trump’s inability to take Puerto Rico and its post-hurricane state seriously.
The Russian troll-factory might have been the force behind driving the #Texit into the hearts of at least some people and the Twitter tops. But #Texit was born in Texas by a Texan and entered the hearts of some Texans, not just anonymous Russian bots. Moreover, it was the Western media that first covered this whole idea — first, The Guardian, and then The New York Times. Plus, Texas was always known for its favorable stance on independence, long before Russia and Twitter — modern secession organizations in Texas appeared in the 1990s.
Therefore, when the secession story in the USA is pictured in the Russian terms, it falls well within the whole Russian hacking narrative but falls short of in-depth objective journalism.
Foreign secession as propaganda pill against domestic protest
When it comes to secession and the right of nations for independence, one must clearly understand that any or most government’s position would be that of “kind of OK as long as it is not on our soil”. One thing is to voice any sentiments about the breaking of a far-away country, another — to see your own country break up. Russia is still licking the wounds left from the collapse of the USSR and is desperately trying to forget the Yeltsin’s policy of giving autonomous republics as much independence as they asked for to keep them within some control and national borders. So, the Russian government position is that of criminalizing even the open discussion of any sort of territorial independence — people can go to prison for just speaking about Siberian or Far Eastern republics.
At the same time, there’s the Ukraine where Russia has been the catalyst of separatism as a way to undermine any potential success of people’s overthrowing the pro-Russian regime in 2014. Putin not only stole the Crimea but did nothing to stop Russian oligarchs and militant groups from keeping Donbas and Lugansk regions in their quasi-independent state. This could be explained by the Russian elite’s and general public’s sentiments towards the loss of the Soviet land. Ukraine was unfortunate enough to pay a dear price for its push away from Russia, but regimes in Kazakhstan or some other former Soviet republics do not feel immune from the rise of imperial aspirations no matter how hard they try to pretend they are pro-Putin (they don’t try hard enough, though).
As for secession movements elsewhere — Spain, the UK, the USA — Russia does not really care. Well, maybe just a little — hoping that break-ups might undermine the stability and prosperity of those countries allowing Russia to act more freely in the international arena. After all, one of the key principles of politics is to divide and conquer. Surely, Russia does not have any plans to physically conquer the United States (Russian politicians and oligarchs are not mad enough to even think of losing their safe haven). But dividing the American public alongside any political rifts might serve some purpose. It would be hard not to agree with POLITICO Magazine here: “people who know the Russian political playbook say winking at these fringe movements — and even giving them a boost — is a part of a very real strategy. Not only is this a way of puffing Russia’s domestic claims at the turmoil in the U.S., but it fits firmly within the Kremlin’s modus operandi of cultivating fringe groups in the West”.
However, all these secessionists in other countries serve as a good instrument in domestic Russian propaganda. Russian TV can always point to foreign examples saying things that range from “the USA have their own troubles to meddle with our affairs” to “look, California and Texas are fed up with the USA” to “Calexit and Texit prove that the USA is a failed state, not Russia”.
This brings us back to showcasing the downsides of territorial independence to the domestic population. Some might be jailed but this may lead to tensions with international civil rights organizations and bad publicity. Making people believe that secession is a nasty business not worthy of even remotely considering is a good way to avoid that.
Plus, you should never underestimate the Russian (media) policy of screaming about other countries’ woes to silence a public discussion of domestic issues. And that might be the ultimate current goal of supporting all those #exits on Twitter.
Let me be absolutely clear here. Russia is proven to have government-supported organizations that are engaged in spreading the Kremlin agenda both internally and internationally via popular social networks and blogging platforms. Russia has backed up conferences and provided financing to numerous alt-right, conservative, and secessionist movements in Europe and the Americas, while simultaneously criminalizing any secessionist discussion on its own territory.
Secessionist movements, parties, and sentiments are homegrown no matter how small or big their fanbase is. They originate as either some fringe groups (as in California) or rather universally supported at least on the level of public sentiments and discourse (as in Texas, or, say, Catalonia). They can grow thanks to foreign investment but only to a certain point, as they would still have to secure voters’ backup in any elections or even proper registration as political players.
Russia may have played a big role in the secessionist resurrection or mainstreaming their agenda, but it did so via the Western media too, and largely to use it for domestic Russian propaganda. Wreaking havoc on American soil, and dividing people along some internal political rifts is just the added bonus that would also be used to advantage in (mostly) domestic Russian propaganda.
Overestimating the Russian role in internal American politics means looking for an easy scapegoat in the US’s own political turmoil, and shifting the focus of attention from local players to outside ones.