by Frances Edstrom, columnist
Foreign countries interfering with others’ elections is not a new phenomenon. Nor is it peculiar to the Russian “meddling” in our most recent U.S. elections. The United States has been known to work to sway elections in other countries over the years, as well.
What is different about the recent incidents of Russian influence is that rather than disseminating printed material, the meddling occurred mainly over social media. The effect was that the propaganda spread almost as fast as the speed of light over the entire country.
I don’t imagine that there is a way to discover whether all the Russian propaganda on social media determined the outcome of the election, although we each have our opinions on that matter.
To my way of thinking, however, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election is not the most important aspect of this story. After all, the best thing about the U.S. brand of democracy is that we have the opportunity to go back to the polls every four years to change our minds about our leadership.
Much more troubling is the fact that it was so easy for the Russians to figure out our weaknesses. Our collective move to replace the melting pot in favor of identity politics enabled the Russians to easily target their propaganda messages to specific groups — African Americans, conservatives, liberals, LGBTQ and the evangelical communities, among others, were all singled out for specific messages designed to feed our prejudices.
Of course, the change in our educational system from the traditional liberal education — where students are exposed to a broad body of knowledge covering the arts, sciences, social sciences, history and philosophy — to a more narrow individualized and technical education, was used by the Russians to divide us further.
If we Americans aren’t literate enough to understand the subtleties of our language, don’t have a knowledge of history, civics, the law, sciences, geography, and refuse to study things we find upsetting, we are setting ourselves up to be used not only by foreign governments, such as the Russians, but also by our own government.
When we have no grounding in a broader knowledge, we have only our limited experiences and our emotions to guide us to the truth of any matter. When that happens, it stands to reason that we can be easily led to distrust our own democracy. If we can be convinced that U.S. democracy is not designed to empower the people, but to enslave them, then it will not be long before we are enslaved by our own ignorance.
After reading the intelligence reports commissioned by the U.S. Senate, it is easy to see, right on my Facebook page, how successful the Russians were. Perhaps they were not responsible for the outcome of the 2016 election, but they have certainly made patsies of all of us. The animus toward each other as individuals as well as social groups that is displayed on social media is astounding, and damaging.
More troubling to me, as a media person, is the fact that not only social media, but what we refer to as mainstream media has allowed itself to become embroiled in polarizing the citizens of the U.S. Even on the vaunted pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, little effort is made to be impartial even on page one, and reporters make no bones about expressing their hatred of the current administration.
I fear that it is we ourselves who have colluded with the Russians to undermine our nation. It will take a collective effort to restore faith in our democracy in our more marginalized communities. I also fear that now that we have opened the Pandora’s box of bile that stains our ability to communicate civilly with each other, it is not so easily put back in the box, even if we next elect a president who isn’t such a willful lightning rod for bias.