Saturday, March 25, 2017

Outside Interference in our Democracy is not the Problem: it's Undermining of Democracy by All of Us that Does the Damage

In the United States we are currently investigating whether Russia conducted a campaign to interfere with our elections last November.  FBI Director, James Comey, confirmed this week that an investigation has been under way since last July.  The goals of the Russian activities, we are told, were to undermine the credibility of the U.S. election, to undermine faith in the democratic process, to denigrate Senator Hillary Clinton and her candidacy, and to harm her chances of being elected. 

It is widely reported that the Russians hacked the email servers of the Democratic National Committee and leaked information to Wikileaks in order to harm the Clinton campaign.  The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress that the Russian efforts included the dissemination and promotion of fake news, rumors, and fantasies through the use of botnets. 

[A botnet is a network of private computers infected with malicious software and controlled as a group without the owners' knowledge, e.g., to send spam messages, or in this case fake news and rumors to cause political harm]

It's not Foreign Interference that's the concern; it's the Fake News, False Information, and Malicious Intent that Does the Damage

The problem here is not primarily outside interference in our election: the problem is the nature of the interference. If Putin, or any other world leader, wants to take out an editorial in U.S. newspapers and make his case for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, have at it. That does not undermine our politics. If Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to meet with Congress about Israeli issues and Congress sees fit to give him 26 standing ovations, as annoying as this may have been for Obama, this does not undermine our democracy.  But spreading fake news about Hillary running a children's sex-ring from a pizza parlor is a problem (because people are ever so gullible). 

So is hacking legitimately private communications and selectively releasing this information to influence the outcome of an election, or to harm individuals. 

Elections are not a rational process. Tens of millions of voters cast their ballots based on insufficient and erroneous information. Even in an ideally clean election, voter ignorance is a problem. But when voter ignorance is manipulated for partisan purposes by undisclosed actors working in the shadows, this undermines our democracy.  Fake news and malicious intent is a problem whether it's Russia, domestic fat-cats with an agenda, or individual Facebook users. 

When one of our national parties is disproportionately beholden to fake news, it's a problem.  When the most watched cable news network is beholden to fake news, disseminated for partisan purposes and profits, it's a problem for our democracy. 

Putin has pointed to American support of NGOs that support democracy in Russia and in places like Egypt.  But ex-President Jimmy Carter working with NGOs that are involved in monitoring the integrity of elections in other countries is not a problem; supporting NGO's that support democracy in Russia is not a problem. By contrast, engineering coups in Iran (1953) and Chile (1973) are dark chapters that undermined democracy. Outside interference in our elections that supports the democratic process is welcome; interference that undermines the democratic process is not welcome. 

The Russians have interfered in a way that undermines our democracy. But what the Russians have been doing to us is not unique. It comes with the Internet. Other countries systematically exploit social media to support public policy, not always in healthy ways. Using social media for propaganda purposes, we note, is not a truth-seeking activity. Once a state embarks on propaganda efforts, there is risk that truth and analysis can fall by the wayside. 
Ultimately it's not the Russians interfering in our elections that's the problem. The problem is the irresponsible use of tools at our disposal, whether these tools are wielded by nation-states or  by individual users of social-media. 

Not all state propaganda is bad. A state should be able to responsibly embark on a propaganda campaign to reduce smoking. In light of the weight of scientific evidence, governments should be able to engage in propaganda to convince us we must do something about global warming, using all the tools at their disposal. A state should be able to advocate for solid democratic practices. Support of public television is a good thing. The danger lies in engaging in propaganda in a disingenuous way.

Democracy can live with a lack of information and with our irrational natures; but democracy can not survive in the long term if integrity and good-will must take a back seat to propaganda and fake news, year after year.

In the United States the Republican party has worked hard to undermine integrity and good-will in our public discourse. For thirty years they have engaged in propaganda that global warming is a hoax, that lower taxes and increased spending will lower deficits, that 4 percent growth is possible if only we remove environmental regulations and cut taxes, that manufacturing jobs will return to the rust-belt if only we build a wall and reject free trade, and cut taxes; that health care for all is possible, if only we stop subsidizing health-care. Such a lack of integrity and good-will is a bigger problem for our democracy than Russian interference in our election. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles

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