A momentous week in America: How social media shaped the news

Florida teens seize their own story, Mueller indicts 13 Russians and Julian Assange is exposed. They're connected

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published February 17, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Julian Assange speaks to the media from the balcony of the Embassy Of Ecuador on May 19, 2017 in London, England.  Julian Assange, founder of the Wikileaks website that published US Government secrets, has been wanted in Sweden on charges of rape since 2012.  He sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and today police have said he will still face arrest if he leaves. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 19: Julian Assange speaks to the media from the balcony of the Embassy Of Ecuador on May 19, 2017 in London, England. Julian Assange, founder of the Wikileaks website that published US Government secrets, has been wanted in Sweden on charges of rape since 2012. He sought asylum in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and today police have said he will still face arrest if he leaves. (Photo by Jack Taylor/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

It has been a dizzying week of tragedy, drama and mystery in America, one of those weeks when history seems to speed up. It may take years to unpack the significance of everything that happened this week, which might (or might not!) represent a turning point in the chaotic narrative of Donald Trump’s presidency. But at week’s end I was forced to reflect that sometimes the most banal clichés turn out to be true. For years we have heard or repeated anodyne mutterings about how social media would transform our politics, our media and our culture — and here we are.

As I write this on Friday evening, going into an unmistakably tense holiday weekend, it feels impossible to capture all the threads of the national drama that unspooled this week. The terrible high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead happened barely two full days ago. It feels longer ago than that, or rather the violence in Parkland has already been transformed into something different and unexpected. That’s largely because the usual numbing ritual of politicians and media commentators mouthing expressions of grief or platitudinous promises, all of it entirely emptied of meaning, has been interrupted or subverted by the voices of people who were actually there.

Real-time video of terrorist attacks or violent crime scenes uploaded to social media platforms is certainly nothing new. But what happened in Broward County this week, both during and after the carnage, was unmistakably different. Many of the young people (and adults) who lived through the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High refused to play their designated roles as mute objects of pity and compassion, weeping incoherently in the parking lot while the bodies are carried out. According to the script the rest of us were wearily prepared to follow, they were supposed to be silent, terrified and uncomprehending. Once the immediate danger was over, however, the young people of Parkland decided that more than anything else they were angry.

We can only hope that the usual suspects who sanctimoniously pretended that another mass shooting in America was a Sharknado-like act of God, which could not have been prevented and whose origins lie beyond mortal understanding (but may have something to do with feminism or former presidents born in Kenya), were startled to encounter the actual voices of actual humans who had lived through the event, suggesting that they either do something about it or STFU. I know it probably won’t change anything, at least not in the near term, but let’s not pretend that wasn’t satisfying: Trump and Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and Tomi Lahren spouted their usual despicable troll-bot bullshit and got told by a bunch of teenagers who had just watched their classmates be murdered. How rude, right? They’re supposed to be blubbering about Jesus, or subscribing to elaborate theories that somehow the Muslims did it.

If the question is whether Congress or the state legislatures now get off their collective asses and enact some reasonable regulations on the ownership of the most murderous kinds of firearms, the answer is clearly no. But the meaning and resonance of the Parkland massacre, which almost everyone initially assumed would result in the same-old, same-old, are now permanently changed. Could this only have happened at a school in a relatively affluent district where the students are culturally literate and carry some sense of entitlement? I’ll leave that one to the sociology professors, but if it took a bunch of kids in suburban Florida who aren’t old enough to vote or drink to articulate a nation’s anger and put the Republican regime of lies on the defensive, I think the rest of us should thank them for it and feel more than a little humility.

Between the Parkland tragedy and now, we have seen the collapse of four bills in the U.S. Senate that might have resolved the status of the undocumented longtime residents protected by DACA, an outcome that can only be considered an ingenious tactical victory for Donald Trump and the anti-immigration hard right. We will probably never know how much of Trump’s ruthless hucksterism is conscious or strategic, and it may be a meaningless question. This is only partly a social media story, although everything Trump does or says is channeled through the stupefying imperial megaphone of Twitter. But he successfully suckered well-intentioned senators of both parties — to the extent that any Republicans can be considered well-intentioned — into believing he might accept the “bipartisan compromise” so beloved of Beltway insiders, when in fact the only bill he was ever willing to sign was one the Senate would never conceivably pass.

As I was sitting down to write this article, we heard that special counsel Robert Mueller has brought indictments of 13 Russian nationals on charges that they manipulated social media accounts on a grand scale, with the apparent goal of sowing widespread discord in American politics and then -- perhaps later or as a corollary effect -- the goal of electing Donald Trump president. Another item on the long list of things we will never know is how effective this troll operation was, given that the widespread discord, and the proto-fascist cancer of Trumpitude, had to be there in the first place for Russians to capitalize on it.

Technically speaking, President Trump was correct in tweeting triumphantly on Friday evening that Mueller’s raft-load of indictments established “No Collusion!” between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin’s operatives. Indeed, we should be cautious about the inferences we draw from these indictments, because the one thing that unites almost everyone on all sides of this messy scandal — deniers, accusers and enablers alike — is a willingness to leap to conclusions based on almost no evidence.

Mueller’s lengthy indictment alleges no conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and the Russians. It’s entirely possible that none existed, or that it existed only as a nebulous cloud of mutual understanding that was never quite articulated and is impossible to pin down. (Odds that Trump will be forcibly removed from office before 2021? I suppose they just ticked up from zero to, well, some mathematical number closer to zero than 1.) If we can intuit the Russian government’s agenda from this document, it fits with the most sober version of the intelligence community’s analysis: Putin wanted to f**k with us, essentially, and make the so-called bastion of democracy look like a rolling dumpster fire. Getting Trump elected, although an awesome outcome in itself, becomes in this interpretation more an illustration of the laughable condition of American democracy rather than the main point.

May I refer back here to a column I wrote less than two weeks before the 2016 election, which seems both uncomfortably prescient and a bit too blithe?

Putin took a few moments to deride American anxiety and political dysfunction during a speech this week at the Valdai forum in Sochi, the Black Sea port city that hosted an especially disastrous Winter Olympics a few years ago. He denied any effort to influence the U.S. presidential campaign and made international headlines by asking facetiously: “Is America a banana republic? America is a great power. If I’m wrong, correct me.” His hand-picked audience chortled, and not without reason; it was perhaps the sickest anti-American burn applied by a world leader since the days of Nikita Khrushchev. I believe the idiomatic American response would be: Dude!

I was more deeply struck, however, by Putin’s observation that paranoia about Russian influence was one of the “fictional, mythical problems that have created hysteria in the U.S.” Our country has numerous “acute and urgent problems, from its colossal state debt to the rise of gun violence,” Putin said, about which “the elite have nothing particular to say.” You don’t have to believe the Russian leader is innocent of all malicious intentions, or that he hasn’t been seeking to meddle in American politics, to agree that he kind of has a point there. This entire election campaign has been deeply idiotic and depressing, and try as we might it’s no good blaming him for that.

I had forgotten that Putin mentioned both gun violence and the U.S. national debt during that speech. In 2018, under Trump and the Republicans’ feed-the-rich tax plan, it all feels rather too much like we’re characters in an unpublished Philip K. Dick novel. It makes no difference to Trump’s followers, of course, that in the wake of this week’s indictments he may have to abandon his oft-repeated creed that there was no Russian campaign to interfere with the 2016 election, and that it was all a sour-grapes “hoax” cooked up by bitter Clintonistas. Generally speaking, Trumpers are fine with whatever degree of Russkie skullduggery was required to defeat Crooked Hillary, and have no faith left to lose in democracy or the rule of law or any of that libtard snowflake crapola.

This is where we get to the rapidly melting iceberg that houses the most loyal Russiagate skeptics and/or deniers, where Devin Nunes and the Trotskyists must huddle together while pretending they don’t know each other, like gay people in a 1970s Baptist town. I have long had one foot on that iceberg myself, in the sense that way too many American liberals have been way too willing to blame an unproven Trump-Putin conspiracy for damn near everything that went wrong in 2016, or may go wrong in the future.

You know the list of far-right and far-left trollery in the Mueller indictments will be used as evidence that Bernie Sanders supporters (or Hillary-haters in general) were all a bunch of Kremlin stooges. A few Democratic operatives actually tried to float the idea, post-Parkland, that the Russians were somehow responsible for mass shootings (because they allegedly funneled campaign money through the NRA). That's a little less mendacious than Alex Jones' desperate attempts to link Nikolas Cruz to antifa and ISIS, I suppose. But honestly not that much.

But all that is a battle for another time. I want to conclude with a less-noticed social-media story that seemed to tie the week’s events together. That was the publication of an archive of private Twitter messages that speak to the apparent motivations of Julian Assange, a lonely and tormented figure who is a central node of the Russia scandal. No one disputes that Assange (or WikiLeaks, which is effectively the same thing) released the emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign in the summer of 2016. Where and how Assange got them, what his intention was in releasing them and how much difference it made to the electoral outcome are all questions shrouded in at least some degree of doubt.

In a lengthy report for the Intercept this week, Micah Bell and Cora Currier present a series of excerpts from “a private Twitter direct message group” used by Assange to communicate with his most loyal supporters. This archive was apparently leaked to them by a former WikiLeaks volunteer who became disenchanted with Assange after learning about the latter’s secret communications with Donald Trump Jr. during the presidential campaign. There’s a lot of incestuous left-wing backstage drama going on here, in other words, but the messages attributed to Assange are entirely convincing in their high-minded, self-aggrandizing snark (not to mention their rampant misogyny).

Many readers of the Intercept article have focused on Assange’s obnoxious or demeaning comments about Hillary Clinton or Chelsea Manning or the Swedish women who have accused him of sexual assault, but none of that strikes me as either surprising or important. What interests me is how clearly Assange expresses what could be called the hard-left argument for favoring Trump over Clinton, a position that, at various strengths and in various iterations, runs through much of the leftist or radical or progressive skepticism about the Russiagate narrative.

“We believe it would be much better for GOP to win,” Assange wrote to the Twitter group in November 2015, a full year before the election. “Dems+Media+liberals woudl then form a block to reign in their worst qualities. With Hillary in charge, GOP will be pushing for her worst qualities., dems+media+neoliberals will be mute.”

As Bell and Currier elaborate, Assange’s argument had nothing to do with ideological support for the Republican Party or Donald Trump, who was still deemed an implausible longshot at that time. (Furthermore, although Assange is clearly a sexist troll, I don't think it's fair to boil his hatred of Clinton, or the general left-wing antipathy toward her, down to that single issue.) It was a matter of perceived global realpolitik, and “the tactical idea that a Republican president would face more resistance to an aggressive military posture than an interventionist President Hillary Clinton would.”

Republicans in power “will generate a lot oposition, including through dumb moves,” Assange wrote, whereas Clinton would “co-opt the liberal opposition” and gain “greater freedom to start wars.” Vladimir Putin is barely mentioned in these exchanges, and only in dismissive terms. Whatever Assange’s relationship may have been with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, I would surmise that he believed he was manipulating them for his own purposes, rather than the other way around. (Which is highly consistent with Assange’s inflated sense of his own importance.)

In effect, this is an updated version of the old Marxist-Leninist precept that to destroy capitalism one had to “heighten the contradictions,” making capitalism worse and more ruthless rather than reforming it. A weakened and divided America under Trump, in this reading, is less likely to wage overseas wars as a hegemonic world power, and Putin becomes an ally of sorts purely because of his interest in undermining American power. This creates a conceptual slippery slope from the position that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 election, or that its importance has been dramatically overstated, to the more cynical or Machiavellian view that maybe it happened and we kinda had it coming.

That's way too complicated an idea to unpack here and now. The point I want to make is that it's not an inherently stupid or incoherent position, but that this week in America has displayed its flaws with brutal clarity. It's a cold-blooded and mechanical line of reasoning that could be said to ride along with various kinds of privilege (all of which are entirely too visible in Julian Assange). It either fails to notice the human suffering and worldwide psychic damage inflicted by the Trump regime or accepts them as collateral damage. It has also been proven wrong on the supposed merits: Trump has displayed zero interest in reining in America’s murky military ventures, and seems eager to start a catastrophic new war with North Korea (something Hillary Clinton would never have contemplated).

But Assange’s obvious preference for Trump over Clinton, which embodies the attitude of the subterranean cadre we could call the Trump-tolerant left, was rooted in the belief that the blundering American superpower was the greatest force for evil in the world, and that Hillary Clinton represented a dangerous return to Cold War-style foreign policy. It's a reasonable belief, and one I have heard expressed in private by a former high-level Obama administration official express. But moral certainty too often begets fatal hubris. Assange and others like him forgot a lesson that is taught in different ways both by history and fairy tales: Everyone thinks they can bargain with the devil and come out ahead. It never works.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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