#BTEditorial – When our own democracy could also be seriously under threat

Last week’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals on charges of conspiring to defraud the United States and to interfere in its 2016 election campaign is cause for serious concern for us in Barbados as we prepare for our own national poll in a matter of months or even weeks.

Yes, we have had a history of relatively ‘free and fair elections’, but the fact that the leader of the free world, the so called standard bearer of democracy –  the mighty US – has now apparently fallen victim to vote rigging, it begs the question, what makes us believe that our own system is sacrosanct, particularly given the widespread allegations of vote buying that were made immediately following the last poll?

Indeed, it was no lesser a person than Prime Minister Freundel Stuart who had sounded the immediate alarm amid the darkness of the night of February 21, 2013 after his incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP) scrapped home with a razor-thin parliamentary majority of just two seats.

At the time, Mr Stuart did not say who was responsible, but vowed to take action to stamp out vote buying which, though illegal, has been a silent truth of our elections in the last 25 or so years. Needless to say, it has served to frustrate the genuine will of the people and has undermined our very democracy.

However, with another general election pending nothing tangible has been done to stamp out the illegal practice.

Even more worrying is that based on the details contained in the 37-page Bob Mueller indictment, it would seem that political parties the world over are becoming increasing sophisticated and ruthless in their raw pursuit for power; therefore the wishes of the people be damned!

So while our law enforcers may be on the look out to see who is receiving ‘a brown bag’ and from whom, or who is attempting to bring a cell phone into the polling booth to photograph his or her ballot as proof for payment for voting by one party or another, we should not be surprised if more unorthodox means are employed.

In his sweeping indictment, US special counsel Mueller, who was appointed by the US Justice Department to investigate allegations of Russian election meddling, describes in detail an unprecedented effort by Russia that spanned several years to interfere with the US political system and the 2016 presidential election.

Following last Friday’s indictment of the 13 Russians and three companies, much of the media focus has been on the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the so-called troll factory responsible for running a network of phony social media identities and paid political advertisements aimed at undermining Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and building up the since elected Republican Donald Trump.

This was reportedly done by an army of trolls which was created in the summer of 2013 in St Petersburg’s Lakhta-Olgino neighbourhood and unleashed to promote #MAGA, bash Trump opponents, organize political rallies, suppress the votes of Clinton supporters, and hire Americans to dress up like Clinton in prison.

In short order the IRA had hired hundreds of employees who generated a steady stream of pro-Putin, anti-west propaganda online. They flooded the Internet with comments and bots, and by 2014, the IRA was so notorious that it became known simply as the troll factory. It attracted talent, in part, by paying higher-than-average salaries for those interested in digital marketing—about $700 a month, according to former workers who have been interviewed by western media.

Their mission was to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general,” according to the indictment and, interestingly, some of the project’s main leaders were an unlikely trio of a retired police officer, a tech entrepreneur, and a PR executive.

The 50-something CEO, Mikhail I. Bystrov, had spent most of his career as a St Petersburg police officer, retiring as a colonel and joining the IRA around February 2014; he was also listed as the head of other IRA front companies, including serving as the general director of Glavset LLC.

The executive director, Mikhail L. Burchik, was a 30-year-old tech entrepreneur; he joined IRA in the autumn of 2013 and by March 2014 had risen to be its executive director, second only to Bystrov.

Alexandra Krylova was the IRA’s No 3 official; she had previously worked at the “Federal News Agency”, a media outlet linked to Russian president Vladimir Putin that has played a key role in promoting Russia’s military operations in Syria.

By organizing itself like any modern digital marketing firm, with departments focused on graphics, data analysis, and search engine optimization, as well as the standard back-office functions like an IT department and finance department to handle budgeting, IRA went to work on “the US population and conducted operations on social media platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” according to the indictment.

Over the next three years, the IRA team researched American politics, cultivated false personas, criticized Clinton – a particular nemesis of Vladimir Putin – and eventually went all-in for a Donald Trump victory.

Reaching across the Atlantic from St Petersburg presented a massive logistical challenge; the IRA employees opened hundreds of social media accounts, creating fictitious Americans who they, with time, transformed into “leader[s] of public opinion”, according to the indictment.

For all we know such meddling could already be commonplace around here.

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