Why do the Russian and Chinese governments want Americans to dislike immigrants?

·5 min read

There is a widespread belief that foreign governments and organizations occasionally meddle or attempt to meddle in U.S. elections. The Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of Americans believed it somewhat likely or very likely that Russia or another foreign government would attempt to influence the 2020 election. Respondent interpretations of the word “influence” substantially affect how we should understand this survey. If respondents interpret “influence” as “attempt to affect the outcome,” then most people should answer “very likely.” The outcome of the U.S. election impacts every country in the world, so all countries will naturally attempt to exert some influence if they can. On the other hand, many respondents will likely interpret “influence” to mean an organized attempt by a nefarious foreign government to change the outcome of the election. As committed skeptics of most surveys, we find these semantic suspicions difficult to shake when interpreting Pew’s findings. That said, some suspicions of foreign government influence on Americans are based on evidence that China and Russia have adapted Cold War‐era tactics such as “active measures” to rile up Americans on certain contentious political issues.

“Active measures” is a term used originally by the Soviet Union to describe political activities that sway public perceptions in other nations, support rebel movements, fund political assassinations, and spread disinformation. According to a 2019 review commissioned by the United States Senate Committee on Intelligence, one Russian agency called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) employed fake social media accounts, media properties, memes, and bots to conduct active measures, perhaps reaching an estimated maximum of 126 million users on Facebook.

The viewpoints promoted by the IRA span the entire political spectrum, from Texit to Black Lives Matter. The IRA’s goal is to intensify political opinions on every issue, not necessarily to sway public opinion on any particular issue. For example, the IRA targeted right‐leaning Americans by promoting nativism. Images circulated by the IRA in right‐leaning circles featured anti‐immigrant slogans printed under an American eagle, allusions to the beauty of a hard border between Texas and Mexico, theories about illegal immigrants committing voter fraud, and rhetoric about how illegal immigrant “invaders” must be stopped. In fact, the most successful IRA Facebook page in terms of comment engagement was called “Stop All Invaders.” The IRA did not similarly push pro‐immigration propaganda on left‐wing voters.

Most of these memes and attempts to influence American political opinions are extremely goofy; the IRA’s memes are so bad that they likely didn’t cause anybody to change their political opinions. Some of the facebook pages created by the IRA spread widely debunked claims of illegal immigrant welfare consumption. In the same way that some Americans are likely to exaggerate the impact of foreign governments on the election to cover up their own political failures, these bad memes were likely created for political actors in Russia to show their bosses that they are trying to sow political division in a country that they don’t understand.

Assuming that these memes were intended to influence American politics, why do the governments of Russia and China gain from increasing American nativism? The IRA assumes that more intense political disagreement about contentious issues will weaken the United States. Perhaps, if the IRA’s propaganda campaign were to succeed, they’d be happy to see immigration restrictions undermining American patriotism and closing off an outlet for anti‐​authoritarian dissidents. Another likely answer is that more anti‐immigrant sentiment could exacerbate the chaotic perceptions of immigration along the U.S. border. The Chinese government could use U.S. border chaos as tu quoque to distract from their continuing and ghastly oppression of Uyghurs. Chinese state media have used the chaos of the Mexican border crisis to deflect criticism and accuse the United States of hypocrisy, drawing parallels between American immigration detention centers and the concentration camps in Xinjiang, China. The words of the Chinese government here could be intended to embolden Chinese patriots or demoralize Americans; either way, at least one portion of the Chinese government believes that it benefits from the perception of chaos at our border.

Another possibility is that the IRA views American nativists as a potentially destabilizing political force. Americans are becoming increasingly pro‐​immigration over time but restrictionists are very intense in their beliefs. After the 2020 election, many recalcitrant supporters of President Trump thought the election was stolen with the influence of illegal immigrant voters. Some of the most ardent believers in that theory rioted on January 6th, 2021 and attempted to disrupt Congress when it was counting the electoral votes. Not all nativists rioted on January 6th, but virtually all of the rioters were likely nativists. Some Russian bureaucrats might have taken credit for that riot, as implausible as it seems.

Immigration restrictionists often cite national security as a major reason for opposing liberalized immigration. The U.S. government should continue to be committed to stopping security threats from entering the United States. It’s telling that some foreign governments appear intent on making Americans terrified of immigration for national security reasons – albeit with terrible memes. Efforts by the IRA and the Chinese government are probably ineffective but it’s worth wondering why they’re trying to turn Americans into nativists.

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Original Author: Alex Nowrasteh, Michael Howard

Original Location: Why do the Russian and Chinese governments want Americans to dislike immigrants?

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