The media have been carrying breathless new reports about the extent of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. I am willing to believe every word and still think these people are behaving like hysterical McCarthyite morons.
Let me be the skunk at the garden party and say that this sounds like a huge load of melodrama. Nothing the Russians did even comes remotely close to the lies and misinformation and deceptive reporting that Americans inflict on each other. The Russians aren’t the ones who persuaded many Americans that global warming is a hoax, just to pick one extremely important example.
And the Russians aren’t dividing our society. This sounds like something white racists used to say about the Civil Rights movement. We have been divided into various political tribes for decades now. Anyone who has ever listened to talk radio or watched the hideous cable news channels would know this.
I have seen a number of New York Times readers react with shock to the US supported Saudi war crimes in Yemen. They seem to have just learned about this. How is this possible? What sort of democracy do we have when our government is complicit in crimes against humanity since 2015 and most Americans only learn about it now? (And the Times’s expert on Yemen rationalizes the paper’s indifference to the story).
Are we supposed to blame the Russians for our immense societal stupidity? The Russian lies are a drop in the ocean of American generated duplicity.
Michelle Goldberg gives exactly my argument for why Russian meddling shouldn’t be seen as so cosmic in significance– though she thinks she is giving an argument for its significance.
“In an election decided by a rounding error — fewer than 80,000 voters spread over three states — Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.”
Samantha Power makes the same argument about Moscow’s interference:
Many people saying Trump wd have won anyway: very unlikely! Hillary lost by 10,704 votes in Michigan (0.2%), 46,765 in Pennsylvania (0.7%) & 22,177 (0.8%) in Wisconsin. Out of 137.5 MILLION votes cast, just 40,000 Trump votes switching to Hillary across 3 states flips election.
They don’t seem to understand that with the scale of propagandistic bullshit in this country, what Russia did was small and its effect might only have mattered if by chance a few states were decided by a small number of votes. Which might have happened. But a zillion other things also determined the vote.
Anyone with half a brain would feel at least a little skepticism about all the melodrama. Anyone looking at Goldberg’s column or Powers’s tweet should be asking how the numbers they cite compare with other numbers. How does Russian propaganda compare in scale to our own? Is there truly anything new in these numbers? I think some are the same numbers we keep seeing– in November for instance. How many Russian messages were actually about the election?
How does it compare to homegrown propaganda? We are speaking about 137 million actors/voters; and expenditures by American partisan groups that far outstrip Russia’s. The Russians spent a paltry $1.2 million a month reportedly. That’s dwarfed by Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion. Even Nate Silver has said that Russian influence was not in the top 100 of influencers of the election. Silver points out that smart people ascribe power to 5,000 Russian tweets– when there are 500 million tweets a day.
If you wrote out a list of the most important factors in the 2016 election, I’m not sure that Russian social media memes would be among the top 100. The scale was quite small and there’s not much evidence that they were effective.
It’s far more likely that the Russians were just throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and seeing what stuck and that basing it on Cambridge Analytica data wouldn’t have been meaningfully more effective than doing it at random.
Which countries actually have an effect on our system? Has anyone in the mainstream press said one word about the Al Jazeera documentary on the Israel lobby that was suppressed by Qatar apparently to make friends in Washington?
And why do so many Americans believe so many falsehoods about so many issues? Shouldn’t that concern people more than having one extra player in the business? E.g., corporations tell us for decades that we have to cut Social Security, can’t have decent health care, global warming is a hoax, we murder poor people in Yemen and Gaza and most Americans don’t even know, the politicians alongside the New York Times lied us into the Iraq– and liberals still fall for this shit about how our wonderful pristine democracy is being corrupted by Russia!
Chomsky wrote about this a lot: educated liberal people are in some ways the easiest people to fool with propaganda. And even if you accept everything the NYT claims about Russia, it is still trivial compared to all the other propaganda and disinformation in the system. If they just acknowledged this I wouldn’t be angry about the Russian meddling assertions, but they are doing their level best to propagandize and make it seem of cosmic importance.
If you buy into their story line then there is no point in bothering with even pointing this out. Let everyone believe what makes them happy.
Of course the new report being blared across the media to fuel yet another round of panic over Russian memes was produced by a “cybersecurity startup” raising boatloads of VC money to suppress “fake news” on behalf of corporate clients. And the founder is former NSA official.
Do you think producing a major report about Russian trolls on behalf of the Senate will help “New Knowledge” obtain new, lucrative clients, especially those doing business with the government? Yeah, probably. Do you think that will be disclosed anywhere in the media reports…?
Note: A (small) portion of this post appeared in a comment by Johnson on the New York Times site.