Russian Hacking and Fake News

On December 30th, the Obama Administration announced sanctions against the Russian government in response to alleged Russian interference in the US election. The act represents a stunning reversal for Obama, who in 2012 derided Mitt Romney for being stuck in the Cold War after Romney correctly identified Russia as America’s number one geopolitical rival. The sanctions are far too little far too late – the Russians have achieved all of their goals in foreign affairs during Obama’s tenure, while whatever influence they had on the election cannot be undone.[1]

The mainstream media has covered the developments in this story in a rather reckless manner. Headline after headline has declared something new about Russia’s “hacking” of the election. This is obviously not what happened; Russia did not hack the election, they hacked the DNC in an attempt to influence the election. But Russia’s goal was certainly for people to believe that they did hack the election and to sow distrust in America’s electoral system. Thus far, this plan has worked perfectly, and the American media has been a willing accomplice. A recent poll showed that a majority of Democratic voters now believe that Russia tampered with the vote totals – despite there being no evidence that Russian hackers directly targeted electronic voting systems. It is impossible to deny that the misleading headlines have had a substantial effect; when you repeatedly talk about how Russia hacked the election, people will tend to believe that Russia hacked the election.

At the same time the media has been misleading the public concerning Russia’s actions, they have been pushing another narrative: fake news. Through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, many fake stories spread like wildfire throughout the election cycle. Supposedly, these stories played a large role in Trump’s victory. Ironically, this narrative about fake news influencing the election is as bogus as the fake stories that were shared. Somebody who believed that Hilary Clinton was involved in Pizzagate – the bizzare conspiracy involving the DNC emails, John Podesta, Satanism, a child prostitution ring, and a Washington pizza parlor – was not ever going to vote for Clinton in the first place. Fake news did not cause Trump’s victory; rather, it is indicative of the massive partisan divide in American politics.

But just because fake news didn’t cause Trump to win doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from it. Fake news is perhaps the most harmful result of the hyper-partisanship that plagues the American political system. It is the logical result of years and years of Americans consuming news to confirm their pre-existing political beliefs instead of to learn about the world. And while the mainstream media desperately wants you to believe that this is a problem only present on the right, the Russian hacking stories demonstrate that this is far from the truth. The left wants to believe that Trump’s victory was illegitimate (see the thousands of stories about how Clinton’s popular vote win somehow negates Trump’s electoral college win[2]), and Russian hacking the vote totals would, in fact, have made Trump’s win illegitimate. That what makes the story so appealing; it confirms the narrative about the election that Democrats want to be true, one that says they lost because of forces they could not control and not because of their mind-boggling incompetence.

Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that things are going to improve. It is likely that future only holds an increase in partisanship and a continuing decrease in media sources that people from both ends of the ideological spectrum trust. The mainstream media could, of course, work to fix this. But there is no indication that the media has any desire to do so. The media could try to cater to stories that matter to people other than coastal and urban elites. Rural America is currently undergoing an opioid epidemic so bad that life expectancy for Americans is actually decreasing, something that is unheard of for a first world country. The media basically ignored this story until the dying hours of the election as Trump pulled close, and even then only as a way to explain Trump’s appeal, and not as a story about a terrible crisis. Almost all reporting from rural areas done by the mainstream media still reads like the writer has made a journey to an exotic foreign land full of strange customs and stranger people, rather than the writer’s fellow citizens. And the media still refuses to even make any effort to discern between sincere religious beliefs and bigotry, in the process alienating the enormous number of Americans in whose everyday lives religion plays a vital role.

The result of all of this is that, as conservative radio host Charlie Sykes put it, there are no more “gatekeepers” in American politics, no place that both sides can go to for unbiased news. The right and the left are operating with completely different sets of facts, and both sides see the other as entirely to blame. We are fast reaching a point – many would say that we have already reached it – where reasoned debate between the two major parties is impossible. And the worst part is, as bad as our present situation seems, the future only seems to portend worse.

[1] The actual effect of the DNC hacks on the election is somewhat unclear. But if they did have an effect, that would mean that voters saw the DNC’s inner workings, and it disgusted them so much that they chose not to vote for Hillary Clinton. That would seem to be a strong rebuke of the Democratic Party, but no prominent Democrat has commented on this. Similarly, it is strange that the Democrats want us to believe that Russia hacked the DNC, but not Clinton’s homebrew server. Suffice it to say, Democrats haven’t really thought through what it means to acknowledge both Russia’s hacks and their influence on the election.

[2] If you actually believe that Clinton winning the popular vote means something, I’m honestly not sure what to say at this point. Putting aside the fact that, constitutionally speaking, it is utterly meaningless, there is still the fact that no one was trying to win the popular vote. Clinton won a game that no one, not even she herself, was playing. She knew going in what the rules were. If things had been different, and the winner of the election was the winner of the popular vote, not only would the Trump campaign have been vastly different, but so would American politics as we know it.

Max Handler

Max Handler is a senior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at maxhandler@wustl.edu

One thought on “Russian Hacking and Fake News

  • 18 January 2017 at 11:11 AM
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    I like how very, very stupid people (like you) call the Democratic Party “mind bogglingly incompetent” (ex-post) for losing an election and yet bemoaned the “death of the GOP” just 6 months ago.
    Your takes are pretty bad. You should do less summary of the current news cycle (which would be hard because it’s all wupr knows how to do) and more critical thinking. Maybe then your takes would be more hot and less stale

    Reply

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