How Americans Are Looking at the Russian Hacks All the Wrong Way
It is clear now that while the 2016 U.S. election may be over, much of the bitter rancor remains. The latest controversy now swirls over how long-time foe Russia may have hijacked America’s election to secure a Trump presidency.
Americans seem to be transfixed by this latest treachery, with President Obama promising retributions, but Trump warning against politicizing American Intelligence.
American penchant for partisan bickering and concerns about foreign interference, however, appear to be” much ado about nothing.”
Lest people forget, up until the eve of the election, the Princeton Election Consortium for example – in line with many other news organizations – had placed Clinton’s chances of winning at 99%. Few had given Trump much chance of winning.
Whatever bad blood the DNC emails had been spilled between the Sanders and Clinton camps, Clinton was able to unite her Party quickly. Whatever embarrassing details the Podesta emails revealed, stories about those emails were far eclipsed by the mysterious simultaneous leakage of a video of a younger Trump bragging about groping women. And however distracting news hoaxes about Clinton mishandling email server or sex proved to be, those never dominated the news cycle the way news accusing Trump of racism, sexism, or hate did.
Hackers and whistle blowers have always harbored their own private agendas, yet we traditionally judge information by its merits, not by the intent of the leakers. So why the fuss about Russian intent and motives now?
Since at least the end of WWII, America has prided in giving political actors free reign to use hyperbole and narratives – including rhetoric that borders on being “untruthful” – to get their points across. In the recent years, America has chastised nations such as China for trying to clean up “fake news” on its social media, deriding it categorically as censorship.
Yet, in the aftermath of Trump’s election – in a strange throwback to the early years when Alien and Sedition Acts were the laws of the land – many are calling on journalists to take on more responsibilities by refusing to report on “gossipy” or “non-credible” news. Others have called for Facebook, Twitter and other social media to weed out “fake news” on their networks.
Politifact.com recently ranked only 15% of Trump’s statements to be true or mostly true while 51% of Clinton’s to be true or mostly true. For some, the fact that Trump is elected is testament that democracy cannot function in an anything-said-goes environment. Trump could never have been elected had rationality prevailed.
For others, appeals to “truthfulness” is always suspect. Much of America’s “fact-checking” industry, they would point out, has been historically biased. What is commonly accepted as factual or not can be more tied to on one’s worldview than actual “fact.” And should American society continue to fragment, more and more Americans would come to see much of what is reported in “mainstream” media as biased and ultimately … “fake.”
Perhaps it takes the election of a figure as controversial as Trump to reveal some of the hidden inconsistencies of American democracy. But many around the world have long been perplexed by how Americans could generally accept laws that govern how food nutrition and drug information are labelled – or how financial information is disclosed – but not any laws on how political ideas are formulated and communicated – even where misinformation and disinformation can lead to social distrust and unrest.
Is America ready for a rethink?
If not, perhaps Americans should at least some thought to advancing global norms against foreign meddling.
As bad as the most recent allegations of Russian meddling may be, America has long done far worse to influence politics abroad. American government – directly and through its various NGOs – jas a long history of not just exposing unsavory information about foreign governments and leaders, but also carrying out espionage and clandestine operations in foreign soils – against adversaries and allies alike.
America can continue to rely on its strength and go it alone in conducting foreign meddling. Or it could seek a common understanding with the rest of the world and get everyone to exercise some self-restraint.
Americans would do themselves and the world a big favor by spending more efforts discussing these issues – and less time engaging in partisan bickering and stoking xenophobia.