The Kremlin and the Panopticon

By Lincoln Mitchell

Over the last few years, the issue of Russian so-called “hybrid warfare” — and Moscow’s deft, if nefarious, use misinformation and media more generally — have been a central theme in global politics. This narrative found widespread traction in earnest with the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and accelerating substantially with the ongoing revelations of Moscow’s role in the US election of 2016. In Georgia, much of this began earlier, going back at least to the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia.

Russia’s activities — a laundry list that includes sending troops into Eastern Ukraine, leaking information and using social media to help Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, supporting socially conservative and anti-Western forces in Georgian civil society, and supporting separatist movements from South Ossetia to California — are real and dangerous. These activities have contributed to another problem, one that threatens the ability of Georgia, the US, and many other countries to function as democracies.

Prison panopticon tower in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Source: YouTube.

Because Russia has weaponized things like Facebook, internal DNC emails, and elements of “un-civil” society in many countries, it is increasingly difficult to know when Russian influence ends and organic domestic political sentiment begins. One way to understand this is to think about the Panopticon, a model for prisons proposed in the 18th century by the English philosopher Jeremey Bentham. Bentham’s idea was to build several floors of cells in a circle with each cell facing inward. A surveillance tower in the middle would allow one guard to see all the prisoners all the time. It was both an ingenious idea for prison construction and serves as a good metaphor for the cyber surveillance that we all confront in our current world.

Michel Foucault’s 1975 work Discipline and Punish used the idea of the Panopticon to explore several questions about power and freedom. One of the arguments he made is that it ultimately doesn’t matter if anybody actually is in the guard tower in the center of the prison because over time the prisoners, or in fact ordinary citizens, modify their behavior because they assume somebody is, in fact, watching them.

“It is likely that even if Russia stopped intervening in political life in the West tomorrow, its impact would not go away.”

Russia has bored its way into political life in the US, Georgia, and much of Europe and Eurasia in such a way that it no longer matters whether anybody is inside the panopticon — or, more accurately, whether Russia’s presence is real in each specific case. We have all confronted this in one form or another. When a pro-Trump person responds to a Tweet in a way that suggests they don’t think the Russia hacking scandal is a big deal; when someone writes a blog missive arguing against sending weapons to Ukraine; or when a Georgian expresses an opinion opposing EU membership or same sex marriage, we now ask ourselves if Moscow’s hand is behind those actions.

In a way, it no longer matters whether or not Russia is involved, because we now think the Kremlin must be behind malign events — or at least wonder, in many cases. This reflexive attitude is not only analytically fraught, but it also undermines our countries’ sovereignty, as it makes it very difficult to have meaningful, substantive debates and contributes to the potential for growing disunity and political instability.

It is likely that even if Russia stopped intervening in political life in the West tomorrow, its impact would not go away. Many would continue to suspect that any number of socially conservative groups or secessionist movements were being naturally backed by Moscow and would see Kremlin fingerprints on much of the false news that permeates our Twitter and Facebook feeds. To be sure, this is very much a consequence of Russia’s actual role in such activities in both Eurasia and the West; but would we know the difference if Russia ceased to be the primary (or at least most notorious) instigator?

Even in the cases when Moscow has discreetly slipped out of the tower in the middle of the Panopticon, we find ourselves still seeing its hand everywhere and therefore unable to fully confront the political problems and threats in our own societies. This is the soft devastation of Russia’s actions. This is what makes Russia’s information operations so insidious and so effective — Russia could end its operations immediately, but the damage to Western political and societal norms will long continue to linger.

Dr. Lincoln Mitchell is an EDSN Fellow and a political development specialist based in New York and San Francisco.EDSN is an international project of the Center for Social Sciences, Tbilisi, and made possible with generous funding from the National Endowment for Democracy.