I see a consensus forming that Russia attempted to influence our election with fake news and other social media shenanigans.
If you start with the assumption that Russia is an enemy of the United States, you probably assume they do bad things to us simply to weaken our power and effectiveness. For example, this article hypothesizes that Russia’s intention was to breed distrust between whoever became president and our intelligence services. I guess that hypothesis sort-of-almost makes sense. But I wouldn’t say it passes my personal sniff test.
Then there’s the more popular theory that the Russians were colluding with the Trump campaign because Putin thought he could somehow control President Trump via blackmail, or business ties, or something else we’re imagining. I guess that could be true. Sort of. But that doesn’t pass my sniff test either.
Then there’s the hypothesis that Russia was messing with our democratic system to weaken the country by sowing distrust about the election process, or possibly by electing a president they believed would be less effective. But I have a hard time believing the Russians thought Trump would be ineffective. Maybe they just thought he would be divisive, and perhaps they thought that’s good for Russia in some way.
I suppose any one of the versions of reality I described could be true. But my brain has to work hard to make sense of any of those explanations. The pieces fit, but only when I hammer them. That raises a red flag for confirmation bias.
Just for fun, let’s compare the standard explanations for Russia’s alleged influence on the election with two other hypotheses.
Hackers and Misdirection
As Putin accurately pointed out in a recent interview, hackers can make their attacks seem to come from other sources, including Russia. I assume there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Trump-supporting Americans with the skills to hack poorly-secured servers. Even if you assume Putin wanted to hack American servers, he would have needed to get in line to do it. Given all the American hackers who opposed Hillary Clinton, there is perhaps a one-in-a-hundred chance Putin’s hackers (if they exist) got to the DNC and Clinton’s servers before the hordes of non-Russian hackers did it. So even if Putin tried, the odds are low that his team got to the good stuff first.
But that’s just the hacking allegation. The “influence” goes further than that, including fake news and other social media shenanigans.
Fake News and Social Media Shenanigans
Let’s say Russia did attempt to influence American voters to support Trump. The first question I have to ask is this: Aren’t all the big countries trying to influence elections in all the other countries, all the time? If Russia did try to influence an American election, wouldn’t that be business as usual? Do we imagine the United States is NOT trying to influence foreign elections through our own fake news and social media manipulations? I always assumed we do that sort of thing. I base that assumption on the following observation about human beings:
If the payoff for bad behavior is high, and the odds of getting caught and punished are low, bad behavior happens every time.
That describes the situation with influencing foreign elections. The payoff is high (potentially) and one assumes the major intelligence agencies know how to avoid getting fingered. Whenever you have this sort of situation, you always have mischief.
But let’s get back to Russia’s presumed payoff for somehow destabilizing the United States. I think we need to check that assumption because Putin seems like a smart guy. It’s hard for me to believe he thinks he would come out ahead by destabilizing the world’s most important military and economic power. And that is doubly true when you are teaming with that country to fight ISIS, put a cap on North Korea, and keep the economy chugging along. It’s hard for me to imagine a scenario in 2017 in which Russia gains by poking America with a sharp stick. The probable outcome seems more bad than good. Who wants a pissed-off nuclear superpower looking in your direction? It doesn’t pass the sniff test. If Putin were an idiot, I could see him wanting to cause this sort of trouble just because he was dumb.
Putin isn’t dumb.
Global Democracy Hypothesis
I’d like to introduce a new hypothesis to explain why Russia might have wanted to influence American elections: They believed a Hillary Clinton presidency would be a disaster to the world, including Russia.
We’ve been brainwashed by the media and our own government to believe Russia always acts against our interests. I think it would be more accurate to assume Russia always acts in its own best interest, and that can sometimes be in conflict with our interests.
But not always.
There is no rule that says Russia’s best interests have to diverge from America’s. For example, both countries want to defeat ISIS. Both countries prefer a non-nuclear North Korea. Both countries prefer robust trade. And so on.
As a thought experiment, imagine the United States watching some other country’s election process while believing one of the main candidates would be a disaster for the world, including the United States. Would our intelligence services try to influence that election, even if it was a NATO country?
Of course they would. At least I hope so.
But something much larger than government-on-government influence is happening, and I’d like to call that out in this post. We keep talking about physical border security, but what about influence security? Any country with widespread Internet access is susceptible to the same kind of fake news and other social media influence that we suspect Russia of doing. And every citizen can play this game. For example, if I were highly motivated to influence an election in Great Britain, I’m sure I could move a few thousand votes in any direction I chose. Could it be said in that case that America is trying to manipulate a foreign election? Yes, unambiguously so. And I believe it is totally legal, even if I use fake news as my persuasion.
From 2017 onward, the democratic process in any country is open to “voting” by the entire world. The foreign “votes” will come in the form of social media influence on the local voters. There is no practical way to stop any of that from happening. And that means political power will migrate from the traditional triumvirate of politicians, rich people, and the media, to individual persuaders who are good at it. In 2017 and beyond, the best persuaders in the world will be influencing democratic elections in every country. And those persuaders will be from anywhere on the globe. Borders can’t stop persuasion.
While you were watching the news coverage about physical borders between countries, and physical immigration, the democratic process in each country became global. We can (and do) influence politics across borders now, bigly. And fake news is part of the soup, unfortunately.
Did Putin or other Russian nationals try to influence American elections? I assume so. I also assume America has done the same – in terms of influence on their local politics – to Russia, and to every one of our allies.
And if we aren’t doing that sort of thing, why the hell not? Voting is open across borders now. We would be wise to vote in those other countries. That’s what Russia did. Allegedly.
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