by Errington C. Thompson, MD –
Last month, I tried to outline the evidence that clearly shows that Russia infiltrated the DNC computers and stole whatever information they wanted.
This wasn’t one of those Mission Impossible quick-strike stealth infiltrations that Tom Cruise has made so famous. Instead, the Russians were in the DNC computers for months. They saw every communication, every email, every policy memo, everything.
Worse, not one but two different Russian groups infiltrated the DNC computers. The NSA as well as the FBI saw the intrusion. Interestingly, Dutch intelligence, which had infiltrated Russian intelligence computers, saw the whole thing. So if you don’t believe the United States government, maybe you’ll believe the Dutch. But this month I would like to talk about something else. I’d like to talk about another aspect of the 2016 election and Russian interference.
For the last decade, Facebook and Twitter have become part of our society. They are a part of our DNA. Almost every member of society that’s over the age of 18 has some interaction with Facebook and Twitter. My 65-year-old uncle has a Facebook page in which he rails against the bad decisions of his Baltimore Ravens. My 17-year-old niece has a Facebook page in which she posted her pictures from prom.
Now, to understand the power of Facebook and Twitter, you must understand how we, as humans, think. For the most part, we don’t sit down like Albert Einstein and figure out every aspect of life. We simply don’t think about every single decision that needs to be made. We use shortcuts. If a friend tells us it’s raining, we don’t go to the Weather Channel. Instead, for the most part we believe that friend. Close friends equal trusted information. (All of us have good friends who are pranksters; with those friends, we check everything they say!)
This is the power of Facebook. When friends send you stuff on Facebook, we become interested in Facebook—because we are interested in our friends. When they send us pictures from their vacation in Florida, we look at those pictures, all 52 of them. When a friend goes out to eat at a nice restaurant, we want to hear about it—because maybe we will go to that restaurant in a few weeks ourselves. Because, after all, a friend recommended it.
Disinformation – a.k.a. Lies
On September 11, 2014, Twitter blew up with hundreds of messages that read, “A powerful explosion heard from miles away happened at a chemical plant in Centerville, Louisiana #ColumbianChemicals.” If you’re somebody who understands how to use Twitter, you would have immediately gone to the #ColumbianChemicals. You would have found hundreds of tweets about a chemical explosion. You would also have found a picture of a tremendous explosion, which looked like a screen capture from CNN.
More publicly, journalists, media outlets, and politicians had their twitter accounts inundated with information from this terrible explosion. Someone tweeted the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper. Someone asked Karl Rove via Twitter if he was going to do something about this, and suggested that Barack Obama should bomb Iraq. A YouTube video popped up with ISIS, the terrorist group, claiming credit for the supposed attack.
Yet this sophisticated, coordinated operation was a hoax. There was no explosion. This was nothing more than a twitter explosion made up by an organization called the Internet Research Agency: a professional Russian disinformation group.
(Disinformation is deliberate falsehoods—propaganda—designed to convince people that falsehoods are true; misinformation is simply erroneous, and subject to correction: for example, if there had been a real explosion, but in Northville, Texas instead of Centerville, Louisiana.)
For the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency used their sophisticated propaganda to influence unsuspecting Americans. They friended hundreds if not thousands of Americans on Facebook. Their twitter accounts had thousands of followers. And they were subtle, or at least careful: they wouldn’t post anything saying that Hillary Clinton was a bad person so vote for Donald Trump; instead, they posted a cartoon of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan and a caption reading “Satan loves Hillary Clinton.”
Then there was the ad which was a picture of the Confederate flag with text in the center that reads “The South Will Rise Again!” This was posted by a nebulous group called South United. There was a Facebook ad which stated every man should stand by his border with a picture of a yellow street sign that stated “No Invaders Allowed.” This is posted by a group called Secure Borders, which of course asks you to join their organization.
These Russians studied us. They used hot-button topics to divide us. They pumped up race, guns, religion, gay rights, and other divisive issues to infuriate us. They redirected our frustration, our anger, our fear, and yes, our hate, toward Hillary Clinton (and to a lesser extent at Bernie Sanders).
Putting this all together
At its heart, this was an old-fashioned, 1960s-style, multipronged Russian operation against the United States. Instead of trying to infiltrate multiple different agencies with spies (remember how they used to be called “moles” that burrowed underground into our government?), Russia used the internet. Burrowing in through those ethernet cables, they entered the Democratic National Committee as well as the Democratic National Congressional Committee. They stole DNC Chairman John Podesta’s emails without leaving their desks. They fed us, the American public, false information through a device that we use and trust every day, social media. And, because we believed the information is coming from friends, we were more apt to believe it: supposed friendship made us more susceptible to Russian propaganda.
Now, add to this mix of propaganda and disinformation the emails released by WikiLeaks of the hacked DNC material which were stolen by the Russians. This email release was timed perfectly, right before the Democratic National Convention. And, just as the Russians predicted and planned, our national newspapers devoured this information. They couldn’t read the emails fast enough and spit the information back out at us in a confusing flurry. Without the Russians saying anything, our own newspapers, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, all published this stuff.
The story that the DNC supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders was the take-home message of the leaked emails. This propaganda, too, was perfectly designed to split us apart. The Bernie Sanders supporters came to the Democratic National Convention mad as hornets. Reconciliation between the two factions (Hillary camp and Bernie camp) of the Democratic Party was nearly impossible. Nobody in either faction of the party trusted the other.
All this disinformation, propaganda, and theft of private communications helped pave the way for Donald Trump to win the presidency.
But Democrats should have seen this coming. This was the Southern Strategy on steroids—the strategy first used by Richard Nixon in 1968 to split us apart over race, civil rights, voting rights, and the peace movement. It was deliberately designed by Republicans in reaction to the passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), the 1967-68 student anti-war movement, and riots demanding racial justice in Detroit, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. The plan was to anger and energize Southern white Democrats to switch parties and support the “law-and-order” policies of Republican Nixon. And it worked.
This exact strategy was used again by Ronald Reagan, who kicked off his 1980 campaign for the presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the civil rights martyrs James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner had been murdered in 1964. The dog-whistle to racists has worked for generations, and still does—and now includes other “demons” of unreconstructed voters such as women’s equality, GLBTQ rights, and Islam and other minority religions—including atheism, which used to be called “godless communism.” (You can’t escape the irony that many of the same people who hated Russia’s “godless communism” now turn to those Russians to save God and American capitalism!)
We, as progressives, must come up with a comprehensive strategy that includes protecting the middle class; fighting human-induced climate change and promoting renewable energy; developing affordable housing; and guaranteeing gender equality, excellent education, and universal healthcare while creating an environment of inclusiveness so that every American feels part of the American dream. If we cannot do that, then we are doomed to lose another election.
But that outcome would be more than simply losing an election. This is about losing the American dream. By allowing the Russians to hack our system and grievously, secretly influence our election, we have elected someone that most voters really didn’t want. (Remember, Hillary won almost 3 million more votes than Trump.)
The president is someone who really doesn’t care about the middle class or the average American worker; he doesn’t know or care about our democratic norms and the delicate rules that have allowed America to change and grow and thrive for almost 250 years. He—and his party—want to deny the vote to many of us, deport millions of others, grab equal opportunity out of our hands and put special privileges into their own pockets—at our expense.
This attack on the American people may be worse than Pearl Harbor or 9/11.