The special prosecutor investigating the Russian connection to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Robert Mueller, recently issued an indictment of 13 Russians. Might that be America’s first step in cleaning up the mental toxicity of social media? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I will return to this.
When during the campaign it became indisputably evident that Russians were actively seeking to affect the outcome of the election, then candidate Donald Trump downplayed the implication by declaring, “They all do it.” Even for someone who routinely shoots from the hip, it was an ominous comment. It was a reference to the fact that various countries — including the United States — have in ways fair and foul sought to or actually affected the outcome of elections in other countries.
What has since become evident, however, is that the Russians are not merely interested in affecting elections, but fermenting or fanning discord of all kinds. It is the 21st century version of the Cold War. The Russians lost that war by the early 1990s when their Soviet empire disintegrated and Eastern European countries abandoned communism and the Warsaw Pact.
Since then, the United States — directly or through NATO and the European Union — has progressively pulled the former Soviet republics into the Western orbit. And that has been to the chagrin and objections of the Russians. When pro-Western demonstrators forced out Ukraine’s pro-Russian government in 2013, that must have been the ultimate affront to the Russians. That they are seeking payback is the only plausible explanation for their subtle yet aggressive quest to destabilise the United States and its European allies.
Early analyses of the patterns of Russian intrusion into the election found that it did not seem coordinated, that there was no apparent link to the government of Vladimir Putin. Well, of course not. Putin, the former KGB chieftain, must know that making such an operation seem uncoordinated — some analysist say they look like pranks — is the most effective way to launch such attacks. That allows him to smirk and deride those who suggest that his government has anything to do with it.
But the scope of the disinformation and fermenting of feuds suggests that it is more than the work of pranksters. The weapons of choice have included hacking and disseminating confidential memos, posting fake news on social media — especially Facebook and Twitter — and fanning the extreme opinions on major controversial issues.
When there is mass shooting, for example, the Russians would use their automated system to repost incendiary remarks such as that mourners for the victims are overreacting or that the shootings were staged by the government as a pretext for seizing people’s guns.
When the president of the University of Missouri was forced to resign in the wake of protests by black students over his handling of complaints of racial harassment, Russian trolls seized the opportunity. They posted fake news of a pending Ku Klux Klan invasion of the campus and distributed a photo of a black boy who was supposedly battered by white supremacists. None of that was true, but it all created enough tension to result in cancelled classes and shuttered stores.
The Russians are apparently doing the same with America’s Cold War partners, the European Union. Evidence has since emerged that just as with the election of Trump, the Russians affected the debate leading to the British vote to leave the European Union. And just as the election of Trump is testing the fabric of the American polity, so too the Brexit vote remains a thorny issue with the EU and Britain.
A recent headline in the online outlet TechCrunch reads, “Fake news is an existential crisis for social media.” The article is a clarion call for social media to clean itself up or lose its identity to regulation. Still, the headline is an understatement. Much more important than the threat to social media is the threat to society itself.
When “news” becomes so badly corrupted and people can no longer tell what is real news and what is purposive hoax, society is in mortal danger. People’s rationality, which ordinarily is suspect, would be eviscerated. During the Cold War, the fear was of nuclear obliteration. While fake news is not that potent, it can do the next worst thing: turn people into mental zombies.
And fake news has an advantage that nuclear weapons don’t: it can be manufactured and detonated by anyone who has an agenda, thanks to the marvels of digital technology. Fake news is not just a mechanism for affecting election outcomes and sowing societal discord, it is also the weapon of choice for targeting and seeking to destroy individuals.
When J. Edgar Hoover directed the FBI’s power to besmirch at civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s, the impact was relatively marginal. Had King been targeted today, social media would have magnified the impact and seen to his downfall long before he was assassinated.
In fact, in this age any troll can claim that King was being paid by the Ku Klux Klan and provide the photos to “back it.”The gullible would readily gobble it up. And when social media gets into its characteristic frenzy, the improbable claim would be reposted so often that even the not so gullible would begin to find it probable.
Such power to troll has now largely replaced rational debate. It is so much easier to troll than to articulate a compelling viewpoint. So, activists target people who disagree with them or express an opinion that does not endorse their ideology or extol their lifestyle. As trolls, they have become a darker version of the paparazzi, leaving the distinct possibility that there can be lower lives than those.
Now back to Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians, what good is that supposed to do? It is a case of applying the tactic of the Cold War to the information war. Even if the indicted Russians are punished—something that’s improbable — how many more indictments would it take to stop the menace? Millions?
Sure, those who purposefully make up and disseminate false news should be held accountable in proportion to the damage they cause. Still, in the long term, the efficacious way to cope with the challenge is to teach people to be more discerning and to question “the messenger’s motives,” as journalism philosopher John Merrill would put it.Punch