On July 21, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament published its so-called Russia Report, which for months served as a vibrant source of drama and unhinged conjecture in the corridors of British political discourse.
After nine months and ample speculation that once published, the report would explode with a degree of closure and clarity to the question of Russia's role in the 2016 Brexit referendum, the report itself fell like a dud shot by a nerf gun. The report was filled to the brink with allegations, but rather vacant with evidence to support them. In the instances that it did provide thin lines of corroboration, it was typically open-source information that was questionable and presented without any countervailing context. Perhaps worst of all, the report relied on an echo chamber of expertise that seems to have dictated the report's narrative and interpretation from beginning to end.
That said, understanding this latest episode of Russia-inspired hysteria is not an exercise performed in vain—quite the opposite. There are three main reasons why the Russia report was a dud, and behind each reason, there is a lesson to be learned about the way we Americans approach and discuss Russia in our national dialogue.
Serious Allegations Require Serious Evidence
In November 2017, allegations sprung that the same “Russian meddling” that supposedly took place in the 2016 United States presidential election could have also manifested itself in the Brexit referendum that same year. Days later, then-British Prime Minister Theresa May took the stage to issue a solemn warning to the Kremlin. In it, she averred that Russia “is seeking to weaponize information deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions. So I have a very simple message for Russia: we know what you are doing and you will not succeed.”
Unfortunately, absent from her warning was any trace of real, verifiable evidence that Russia had, in fact, meddled in the referendum. That, of course, did not curtail an onslaught of fear-mongering, panic, and tough talk that quickly followed and has persisted up until this point. The Russia Report was supposed to finally deliver the gun and the fingerprints that would connect Russia to the crime, but instead, it found that His Majesty's Government "had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results."
Critics have predictably latched onto the part suggesting the British government did not seek evidence while ignoring the part that indicates HMG did not see evidence of so-called “Russian meddling.” There are a couple of problems with this ad hoc repositioning. For one, the British government certainly DID seek out evidence of Russian influence. As acknowledged in the report, the National Crime Agency carried out an almost two-year investigation into Arron Banks, a British businessman who was tacitly accused of funneling eight million pounds of Russian money into the Leave.EU campaign. The National Crime Agency concluded its investigation earlier this year, “having found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed.”
That brings us to the second problem with both the report and the way Russia conspiracy theorists have shifted the goals post in reaction to the report. That is, it is incredibly hard to prove a negative, to prove that something does not exist. In the same way, it’s impossible to prove whether or not ghosts exist, it’s impossible to prove that Russia did not interfere in the Brexit referendum. It’s only possible to prove negative claims that are made with well-defined parameters. For example, the negative claim that “there is not a chair in the Oval Office.” That claim is subject to scrutiny because it incorporates specificity. When it comes to Russian meddling, the positive claim that Russia actually interfered and effectuated the outcome has been marred with a cult-like ambiguity. What does “Russian interference” even mean? The truth is “Russian interference” has become a buzzphrase that means everything and simultaneously doesn’t mean anything.
Moreover, investigations typically require prior evidence of a crime. The FBI would not open up an investigation of a robbery if there was no initial evidence that a robbery had taken place. The same goes for the British government. What is His Majesty’s Government supposed to investigate when there is no initial evidence of Russian meddling to drive that investigation? There were 17 million people that voted “Leave” and billions of tweets leading up to the EU referendum, was HMG supposed to investigate every single person and tweet that expressed support for leaving the European Union? Where would such an inquiry even begin?
The problem is the allegation of Kremlin involvement in Brexit is not unique. There has been a litany of serious allegations hurled at Russia since 2016 and most of them have lacked serious evidence to evaluate their veracity. From allegations that Russain hackers hacked a Vermont power grid, to an accusation that Russia had attacked American diplomats in the Cuban Embassy with supersonic weapons, there has been a proclivity for both British and American gatekeepers to open the floodgates for outlandish allegations before establishing an evidentiary basis. That tendency to publish without proof is deteriorating our relationship with Moscow, and more importantly, it’s deteriorating our democracy. That’s because promoting fake stories and bad-faith arguments does two things: (1) it erodes society’s trust in institutions by destroying the credibility of those whose job it is to inform and (2) it creates a public that supports misinformed policies. If the health and well-being of American democracy is a priority, then substantiating serious allegations with actual evidence has to take precedence. Media outlets have to start being more responsible, diligent, and skeptical.
According to the ISC Report, the most compelling piece of evidence that Russia meddled in the EU referendum is based on open sources studies that “have pointed to the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories on RT and Sputnik, and the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.” Unfortunately, those open source studies are not actually very compelling and the authors of the report seem to purposefully overlook any countervailing evidence that suggests Russia did not in fact make a concerted effort to intervene in British politics.
For example, it’s probably true that RT and Sputnik ran a majority of pro-Brexit stories in 2016, but that in itself is not unique. In fact, a study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism that analyzed nine British national newspapers over the four months leading up to the referendum found that roughly 41% of UK press coverage was pro-Brexit opposed to 27% coverage that was pro-remain. If anything, RT and Sputnik’s coverage of the EU referendum mirrored that of other British media outlets.
However, there is more countervailing evidence that the ISC conveniently overlooked. Twitter, for example, reported that the Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT spent just a little over $1,000 to promote its Brexit coverage in 2016. And Facebook, for its part, reported that the infamous Internet Research Agency, a troll farm with no proven ties to the Russian government, spent a grand total of $0.97 on three advertisements that were viewed 200 times. If Russia was behind a concerted effort to interfere in the Brexit referendum, then why did it spend so little money? According to the Electoral Commission, more than $45 million dollars was spent during the Brexit campaign cycle, 59% of that money being spent by pro-EU campaigners. Are we really supposed to believe that a little over $1,000 had a tangible impact or swayed the pendulum? Why leave this important context out of the report?
That same degree of context has been largely left out of the discourse in the United States. Although the Mueller Report was far more thorough and context-driven than the ISC Report, mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN have stopped well short of providing the sort of context that would put “Russian interference” into perspective. CNN has published 172 articles mentioning the Internet Research Agency since 2016, and yet CNN hasn’t once mentioned how minuscule and ineffectual the IRA’s operation actually was. The Russian-troll farm spent around $46,000 on Facebook ads leading up to November 2016—which amounts to just 0.05% of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. And to be exact, just “11% of the total content” attributed to the IRA was related to the presidential election. This suggests that the IRA’s activities were never some elaborate election operation, but more likely just a form of clickbait capitalism.
Nevertheless, the object lesson here is that context matters. If we want a healthy national dialogue about what Russia did or did not do, then our institutions have to start leading that conversation with context and refrain from the impulse to sensationalize at the expense of the truth. Without context, we humans are prone to err and needlessly obsess about non-existent threats. That’s precisely what many people have done and will continue to do if that aspect of our national conversation doesn’t change.
Intellectual Diversity is Key
Perhaps the Russia Report was void of context and counterfactuals because it was simultaneously void of something far more important, something that would steer it away from the interminable trap of groupthink. That something was intellectual diversity and it was nowhere to be found in the report or among the experts that informed the Committee. The Intelligence and Security Committee instead relied on an echo chamber of personalities like Anne Applebaum, Christopher Steele, and Bill Browder—all of which are known for their extreme cynicism towards Russia and parrot the same talking points.
If the Committee wanted to procure an accurate picture of the Kremlin’s geopolitical strategy and motivations, then it would have consulted a wider range of experts. It would have sought out professionals with a more balanced or sympathetic view of Russia. Instead, the authors of the ISC report treated its panel of anti-Russian crusaders as if they were testifying the Gospel and were impervious to possessing preconceived biases. As a case in point, the report quotes Bill Browder in the section that explores the purported influence of Russian oligarchs. In it, Browder states without specificity that:
“Russian state interests, working in conjunction with and through criminal private interests, set up a ‘buffer’ of Westerners who become de facto Russian state agents, many unwittingly, but others with a reason to know exactly what they are doing and for whom. As a result, UK actors have to deal with Russian criminal interests masked as state interests, and Russian state interests masked by their Western agents.”
No other evidence is sourced or provided to back up that claim. The authors simply placed Browder’s statement in quotations and moved on, avoiding any burden of proof.
This once again is something that both the United States and the United Kingdom have in common. On both sides of the Atlantic, there is an astonishing lack of thought diversity on Russia represented in the media and political arena. Hawkish and cynical views of Russia are seemingly the only views that earn airtime, whereas American and British experts who see Moscow more favorably are often quarantined from engaging in the important conversations happening in our political ecosystem. Oddly enough, even Russian voices are missing from the conversations we are constantly having about Russia. This limited discussion of alternative perspectives and alternative courses of action ultimately leads to a national conversation that is on the verge of malnourishment, void of the sort of thought diversity that fosters better group decision-making. If we want to start making better policy decisions and eventually reconcile differences with Russia, then it starts with bringing more diversity to the dinner table. It means inviting and engaging with pro-Russian voices that challenge the shadows of our groupthink and letting the best arguments win.
This article was originally published with the Russian International Affairs Council.