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Ideology and influence in the debate over Russian election interference


The salience of the debate over Russian political interference in the USA has increased significantly during the Trump administration. However, there is no consensus over how to respond to the interference of this openly illiberal power. This paper argues that we need to reconceptualize our understanding of Russian influence to understand this high level of contestation. While the current understanding of Russian influence is characterized as a problem of unwanted information flows, we argue that we also need to take seriously the ideological influence that the Russia regime has in the USA—that the appeal of the Russian regime’s conservative and populist ideology can help to explain this division. By taking ideological attraction seriously, we can explain why it is currently difficult for the USA to respond to this threat and why solutions to Russian interference based on the information flow models need to be reconsidered.

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  1. While there is certainly some overlap between the concepts, we view propaganda as the dissemination of new or reinterpreted information that attempts to win the public over, whereas disinformation involves the dissemination of blatantly false information in order to confuse, sometimes by putting conflicting narratives into the public sphere to make the separation of truth from falsehood difficult Martin (1982) Disinformation: An instrumentality in the propaganda arsenal. Political Communication 2(1): 47–64, Hendricks and Vestergaard (2019) Reality Lost: Markets of Attention, Misinformation and Manipulation. Cham, Switzerland: Springer Open.

  2. Domestically, some scholars have argued that the maintenance of conservative ‘spiritual-moral values’ have become so important to the regime that they have been defined as a national security issue Østbø (2017) Securitizing “spiritual-moral values” in Russia. Post-Soviet Affairs 33(3): 200–216.

  3. In a direct homage to the Tsar, Putin unveiled a monument of Alexander III in the Crimea in 2017 Luhn (2017) Putin seeks reflected glory of Russian tsars as he unveils statue in Crimea.

  4. It should be noted that this is not simply a US phenomenon. Similar sentiments are also widely shared among European populist leaders Shekhovtsov (2014) The Kremlin’s marriage of convenience with the European far right., Francetv Info (2014) Marine Le Pen dit partager des "valeurs communes" avec Poutine., Krekó et al. (2015) Russia's Far-Right Friends in Europe-Hungary. Russian Analytical Digest 167, Savino (2015).The Italian russophile rightist parties: a new love for Moscow, Polyakova (2014) Strange bedfellows: Putin and Europe's far right. World Affairs 177(3): 36–41.

  5. Among Democrats, alternatively, it declined by 3 points.

  6. Again, this is not a phenomenon that is limited to the USA. Similar shifts towards accommodating Russia can be seen in the positions of populist elites across the West. As some scholars have previously argued, this correlation between open admiration of the ideological values put forward by the Russian regime among populist elites and support for Russian foreign policy is symptomatic of soft power influence Keating and Kazcmarska (2019) Conservative soft power: liberal soft power bias and the ‘hidden’ attraction of Russia. Journal of International Relations and Development 22(1): 1–27. Previous studies have considered the phenomenon of ‘authoritarian diffusion,’ which encompasses some of these values, but they did not focus on diffusion into Western states Ambrosio (2010) Constructing a Framework of Authoritarian Diffusion: Concepts, Dynamics, and Future Research. International Studies Perspectives 11(4): 375–392, Way (2015) The limits of autocracy promotion: The case of Russia in the ‘near abroad’. European Journal of Political Research 54(4): 691–706.

  7. As Erica Frantz & Andrea Kendall-Taylor Frantz E and Kendall-Taylor A (2017) The Evolution of Autocracy: Why Authoritarianism Is Becoming More Formidable. Survival 59(5): 57–68. Point out, the majority of authoritarian regimes at the end of the Cold War were created through coups. Today, democratic decay is on trend to be the most common way to authoritarianism.


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Correspondence to Vincent Charles Keating.

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Keating, V.C., Schmitt, O. Ideology and influence in the debate over Russian election interference. Int Polit 58, 757–771 (2021).

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  • Russia
  • USA
  • Ideology
  • Populism
  • Propaganda
  • Disinformation