International Policy Digest

Culture /18 Jul 2020
07.18.20

How the Ease of Establishing New Social Norms Creates a New Reality

Today, it is easier than ever to establish these norms, utilizing the power of foreign entities and revolutionary tactics.

In mid-June, Graphika published new research on the efforts of Russian disinformation campaigns over the past 6 years. According to the report, Russian operatives used online forgeries, fake blog posts, and more than 300 social media platforms to undermine opponents by propagating false information about the country’s global enemies, focusing on the United States.

According to the authors, the main goal of the campaign, which the experts call “Secondary Infektion,” was to divide people and organizations disliked by Putin, as well as set allies against one another. American analysts admit that Secondary Infektion was not as effective as the divisive social media campaign waged by the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 presidential election. But, it’s still difficult to assess its consequences. Analysts have yet to figure out which of the Russian special services oversaw Secondary Infektion, and what its genuine goals were.

In fact, many American organizations, both private and public, are struggling to identify disinformation from foreign states. With the help of modern technologies, it’s possible to track which accounts generate false content, how its distribution is coordinated online, which groups of accounts pick up information, and how they relate to one another. This information can be used for deeper analysis– both of the content of the posts and of the authenticity of the profiles of its distributors.

And yet, this doesn’t solve the main problem of our time; constructing a new social and political landscape is becoming easier, tracking the process of this creation is becoming more difficult, and it’s often impossible to influence what has been created. Indeed, what if the majority of those who disseminate misinformation are Americans who sincerely believe in it? The Kremlin calls this group the unflattering name of “useful idiots.” It is even more difficult to locate the source of disinformation if the coordination of specific propaganda campaign is carried out not between online accounts, but in a closed space, like encrypted messengers. If at the same time individual “agents of influence” involved in such coordination have access to media platforms, it becomes increasingly challenging to not only to track who was the first to organize the injection of fake information, but also to prove the very fact of coordination.

It is sometimes frightening how quickly new narratives morph into new social realities. This applies not only to foreign disinformation campaigns but also to the creation of social norms. For example, one may argue that the protests raging in the United States as a result of social grievances garnered support from foreign entities. Perhaps, for the first time, new social etiquette is born in the midst of foreign influence. This etiquette includes new criteria of political correctness which has begun encroaching on censorship or the revision of history, resulting in a “war with monuments.”

Social change, however, is not an evil force. Revising history in the light of new social standards is typical. During the American civil rights movement, which led to the abolition of segregation, new rules of behavior were created. For example, the catalyst of Black passengers refusing to give up their seats to white passengers on public transportation. The new norms arising from the bravery of those during the civil rights movement did not apply to the whole of society instantly and comprehensively.

The new norms gradually fought for its right to exist, expanded, was refined, and received legitimacy from society and the state over time and prolonged effort. Segregation was also abolished by the government – of course, under the influence of protests. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech “I have a dream” was on August 28, 1963, and the Civil Rights Act was adopted almost a year later, in July 1964.

In 2020, a point in time where information floods each and every one of us by virtue of the Internet, it appears that new norms can be created and practices almost instantly without any participation or legitimization by the state. Regardless of a lack of approval by an entire society, new norms can instantly affect society as a whole. Of course, these norms do not embody the law mechanism of coercion, but they are more than compensated by social mechanisms: the ability to fire, hound, ruin his business, and so on.

As a result, a rather strange situation developed. Even without a real revolution, we see certain elements of revolutionary processes in America. During the recent protests, some new rules are spontaneously created, which are instantly picked up by the mainstream media and large companies afraid of losing customers. These three factors: the Internet, the media, and the market, modify social standards. Protesters in the U.S. are not trying to seize power, but it turns out that the introduction of new rules and norms is possible while bypassing the power institutions and the need to achieve public consensus. The result is a kind of new, lightweight version of what was called “revolutionary legality,” coined by the Russians in the revolutionary period of 1917; spontaneous “social rule-making” was born not out of law or a new social contract, but directly out of chaos.

The situation in the U.S. is complicated by the fact that the Democratic and Republican elites are not interested in any kind of social or political consensus. On the contrary, both entities try to mobilize their supporters as much as possible before the upcoming elections, including demonizing opponents. The social norms created and actively implemented by one part of society causes such a sharp rejection in the other part.

Foreign propaganda intervention and protest activity within the country have demonstrated how easy it has become to create a completely new reality under certain conditions, and at what frightening speed it enters people’s lives. And, it seems that we still can’t imagine all the possible consequences of such processes.