Postmortem

The title of this post is identical to the title of a post in Messing with the Enemy an excellent book by Clint Watts. The postmortem on Russia’s influence and meddling in the presidential election of 2016 may never end. Trump was completely unconventional, uninformed, unlikable in so many ways, and yet had become the leader of the free world. Fake news entered the American lexicon, and Watts pre-election detailing of Russian active measures on the internet became the subject of hot debate. Had fake news swayed the U.S. presidential election?

Social media companies began digging into the data. What they found spelled dangerous trends for democracy. Americans were increasingly getting their news and information from social media instead of mainstream media. Users were not consuming factual content. Fake news, false or misleading series from outlets of uncertain credibility was being read far more than that from traditional newsrooms. EndTheFed.com and Political Insider produced four of the five most read false news stories in the three months leading up to the election. One story falsely claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump and another story falsely claimed that Hillary Clinton’s emails hosted on WikiLeaks certified her as an ISIS supporter. Throughout December, fears of Russian election manipulations grew, and each day brought more inquiries into how Russia had trolled for Trump.

The American electorate remains divided, government operations are severely disrupted, and faith in elected leaders continues to fall. Apparently, the objectives of Russia’s active measures have been achieved. Watts concludes that Americans still don’t grasp the information war Russia perpetrated against the West, why it works, and why it continues.

Watts writes, “The Russians didn’t have to hack election machines; they hacked American minds. The Kremlin didn’t change votes; it won them, helping tear down its less-preferred candidate, Hillary Clinton, to promote one who shares their worldviews, Donald Trump.

Watts continues, “Americans’ rapid social media consumption of news creates a national vulnerability for foreign influence. Even further, the percentage of American adults fifty and older utilizing social media sites is one of the highest in the world, at 50%. Younger Americans, aged eighteen to thirty-four, sustain a utilization rate about 80%. Deeper analysis by the Pew Research Center shows that U.S. online news consumers still get their information from news organizations more than from their friends, but they believe the friends they stay in touch with on social media applications provide information that is just as relevant.

A look at the Columbia Journalism Review’s media map demonstrates how social media encouraged information bubbles for each political leaning. Conservatives strongly entered their consumption around Breitbart and Fox News, while liberals relied on a more diverse spread of left-leaning outlets. For a foreign influence operation like the one the Russians ran against the United States, the highly concentrated right-wing social media landscape is an immediate, ripe target for injecting themes and messages. The American-left is diversely spread making targeting messages more difficult.

The Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia bought $4,700 in advertising and through eighteen channels, hosted more than 1,000 videos that received more than 300,000 views.

The Russians created a YouTube page called Williams and Kalvin. The page’s videos showcase two black video bloggers, with African accents, appearing to read script that Barack Obama created police brutality and calling Hillary Clinton an “old racist bitch.” The Williams and Calvin page garnered 48,000 fans. Watts writes,”Russian influence operators employed most every platform—Instagram, Tumblr, even PokemonGo—but it was the Kremlin’s manipulation via Twitter that proved the most troubling.”

Watts concludes that U.S. government resources are needed to find a truly effective effort. Intelligence agencies, Homeland Security, and the State Department need to rally and coordinate. Rex Tillerson was late in using the $80 million Congress had set aside for counterpropaganda resources, and then used only half of the appropriated amount. This is just a start, and a small one at that, of what America needs to do against Russian influence. The last sentence in this chapter reads, “Kislyak was right, and Putin must still wonder, “Why hasn’t America punched back.”

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