Over the past month much attention has been paid to the role played by fake news — a combination of conspiracy theories from places like Infowars and stories from hoax websites — in influencing the course of the U.S. election and helping Donald Trump win the presidency. But over the weekend, we were reminded that sometimes effective propaganda can be misleading without being fake at all.
The Russian government, according to the CIA, pulled off an astonishing bit of psychological operations on the American electorate without ever technically lying to anyone. CIA agents, according to news reports, presented a formal analysis to lawmakers last week, arguing that the Russian government had hacked the email accounts of Democratic Party leaders and then used WikiLeaks to strategically release the emails, sowing conspiracy theories and paranoia to dampen voter turnout for Clinton. (Julian Assange and people close to him continue to deny that Russia was the source of the leaked emails.)
Assuming that the Russians did this, their strategy worked because too many power players in the American political ecosystem were too shortsighted, lazy and selfish to look past their own immediate self-interest and consider the big picture. What the purported Russian email hack ended up doing was illustrating the various weaknesses in our political systems and culture — weaknesses that Trump, likely with Vladimir Putin's assistance, was able to exploit to claw his way into the White House.
Here's a short list of the various political weaknesses that Russian hackers were able to take advantage of.
Mainstream media outlets are more interested in appearing fair than actually being fair.
Trump is so corrupt that he coughs up more genuine scandals before breakfast than most dirty politicians can come up with in a lifetime. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, is a clean politician, which we know because she's been under some kind of dogged investigation for the better part of three decades, without a speck of real dirt coming up on her.
But to report this basic truth — that one candidate was irredeemably corrupt and the other was not — would have drawn accusations from the right that the media was in the tank for Clinton. So, in order to appear fair, mainstream media outlets embraced a policy of being incredibly unfair to Clinton, blowing every non-scandal out of proportion.
WikiLeaks and its Russian buddies were able to exploit this media bias toward "balance" over truth by slowly releasing emails regarding the Clinton Foundation, Democratic National Committee strategy and other hot-button topics. None of these emails were scandalous by any commonsense measure, but media organizations' need to show they were being as "tough" on Clinton as they were on Trump led to a widespread tendency to equate Clinton's non-scandals with Trump's actual scandals.
Most people don't really read the news, but just glean general themes from headlines and cable TV.
Those individuals who actually bothered to read the stories about the email leaks would generally find that the blaring headlines were wildly misleading. As Matthew Yglesias at Vox wrote, one hacked email chain "doesn’t raise the question of whether Clinton Foundation staff got special access to passports from the State Department. It answers the question. They didn’t, as the story says."
It's the same story for the questions "raised" by emails stolen from DNC officials and Hillary Clinton's campaign chair John Podesta. If one read past the headlines, one would invariably find that there was nothing scandalous going on.
For instance, one headline for Vanity Fair read:
But in the actual text, writer T.A. Frank admitted that "you’ll find nothing close to a scandal in itself" and "Clinton’s campaign is, mostly, reassuringly plodding and rules-bound."
Or take this Politico headline:
The actual article noted, however, that "the emails affirm the campaign’s reputation for extreme caution, with an eagerness to proactively influence news coverage." Scandalous.
The problem is that most people don't read much past the headlines. Only 31 percent of the people who read online articles, according to statistical averages, read more than a few paragraphs. But the big reveal in the typical article about the email leaks — that there was no scandal — usually came well into a piece, at a point where most readers disengaged.
And that's just when you're talking about the people who actually clicked on the article. Nowadays, a lot of people don't even do that. They see headlines on Twitter or Facebook about news story and don't bother to read it.
All these stories about "leaked" emails left the indelible impression with voters that there must have been something in them that was worth leaking, even if they had no idea what it was. Which, if I'm going to hazard an educated guess, is exactly the impression the Russian hackers were trying to leave.
People on the left can be conspiracy theorists, too.
Nation writer Josh Holland joked on Twitter about the shortsightedness of the social media reaction to the CIA's reveal about Russian involvement in our election:
As soon as the news came out, a bunch of Bernie Sanders dead enders started roaming social media, looking for Clinton supporters to snipe at. (The phrase "Bernie would have won" has developed into a virtual catcall for the sexist left.) It was an odd response, but it makes sense if you remember that the Bernie Bros. were the main audience for WikiLeaks' insinuations that Clinton had to cheat to beat her male opponent in the primary.
The email hack did not actually reveal any evidence that the Democratic National Committee had treated Sanders unfairly during the primary. It did find that some DNC employees expressed negative thoughts about him after his campaign repeatedly accused party officials of dirty pool, but there was no dirt beyond private grousing.
But WikiLeaks timed the release of the emails right before the Democratic National Convention, when many Sanders supporters were still grieving their candidate's defeat during the primaries. It seems clear that the intent was to foment conspiracy theories about the DNC's "rigging" the context. That strategy worked even better than pro-Trump forces could have dreamed, leading to widespread accusations that Clinton had cheated and dampening enthusiasm for her in the general election.
Unsurprisingly, the same folks who flogged these not-actually-scandalous emails in July are now trying to cast doubt on the CIA report, showing that they haven't learned anything about the dangers of buying into propaganda just because it flatters your ego.
(This should go without saying, but in our day and age, one can't be too sure: Most Sanders supporters did not engage in spreading these conspiracy theories, and Bernie Sanders himself campaigned for Clinton and had nothing to do with the conspiracy theories. The problem is that all these left-wing conspiracy theories contributed to the Big Lie that Clinton was corrupt, which helped reduce turnout for her.)
Most Republican politicians put party before country.
One of the scariest revelations in The Washington Post piece about the CIA report was that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a secret meeting between Democratic and Republican leaders, "raised doubts about the underlying intelligence and made clear to the administration that he would consider any effort by the White House to challenge the Russians publicly an act of partisan politics."
The threat — and it was a threat — seems like it was effective because the White House decided against the release. But the whole thing is a neat distillation of Republicans' attitude toward any Trump-based corruption: They're happy to look the other way as Trump and his supporters plunder the country, spread racism and bigotry and undermine our democracy, so long as they get a crack at destroying Social Security and Medicare.