The ‘Russiagate’ push

Anyone following the Trump-Russia news nexus in recent months, especially the Mueller report, would have noticed an increase in the use of the term “Russiagate” as a descriptor for the event.

I’ve wondered for some time, why – based on reading Russian media outlets – this is the Kremlin’s preferred term, over other ones such as “TrumpRussia” or “TrumpPutin” or the “MuellerReport”? The likely defenders of Russia-friendly positions use Russiagate pretty consistently.

US-based internet researcher Josh Russell has pulled a set of bot accounts that all pushed the term until suspended. (Link below).

For me, the surge of bots pushing the term on social media, alongside humans using it online, in print and on TV, shows how the Kremlin tries to shape the terms of a debate in a way favorable towards its view. Social media, of course, makes this easier. If you’re trying to talk about Russia’s spell over Donald Trump, and you have to wade through a sea of “Russiagate” mentions you will likely eventually adopt the term.

Still, there is a not a clear motive for the linguistic attack on this specific term. Yet its use accords with the Kremlin’s longer-term view of information ops. It’s not about short-term gains but longer term ones. So the focus of propaganda can be oblique. Nevertheless, the push is consistent with Kremlin’s goals elsewhere: frame and shape the debate.

I can think of three possible explanations:

1) Calling it “Russiagate” brings it in line with all the other “-gates” since Watergate, which normalizes and reduces its profile. Especially when compared to TrumpRussia, or other terms that hint at the unprecedented situation in which the US president is backed by a hostile foreign state, and is in the process of dividing the US as much as possible.

On social media, a message can easily be targeted: not just through bots, seeding the message, or trolls peppering targets, but linguistically too. For example: you can declare yourself Trump opposition, assume the language of Trump opposition, then set about hollowing out the meaningful opposition from the inside, by being divisive, by making weak arguments, by recirculating stories that put the opposition on defensive.

2) Promoting “Russiagate” as a rival term to other naturally-occurring names helps to divide the growing consensus among the public that yes, Russia is a major protagonist in Trump’s political rise, as well as a motive for his actions. Highlighting internal divisions is a key information operation tactic used by Russian trolls at home and abroad.

3) Somewhat related to this, the term “Russiagate” may simply act as a marker, to help follow the conversation from afar. Its use can help onlookers (like, say, in St Petersburg) track the relative strength of one side of a global debate by charting the hashtag’s popularity.

In any case, it’s a clear example of the drive to shape the discussion within the US, even if it’s not clear why it should be shaped this way. The “Russiagate” term push should be a reminder for those who want to defend the Liberal Order that they need to think broadly about how to define the world today to shape its future in a way more favorable to democracies.