Saturday, June 23, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: We have met the enemy and he is us

Welcome to the United States of Dystopia. Please stand for the national anthem, Lies, performed by the Rolling Stones: "Lies, dripping off your mouth like dirt. Lies, lies in every step you walk. Lies, whispered sweetly in my ear. Lies, how do I get out of here?"

Well, for starters you could disconnect from social media, which we have learned recently, thanks to special counsel Robert Mueller, has become a coven of Russkie prevarication.

Last week Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three companies on charges of attempting to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign by way of a complex web of internet trolls who engaged in a vast cyber campaign to spread disinformation across America’s political landscape.

At the heart of the indictment were charges that Russian operatives, who were well versed in idiomatic English, were successfully able to pose as Americans in running what prosecutors described as "information warfare against the United States."

And it was a pretty vast plot. Prosecutors estimate as many as 126 million Americans received bogus Russian social media propaganda postings that ran the gamut from pro- and anti-Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump messages, to material supporting a Texas secessionist movement (which, come to think of it …), gun rights and Islamophobic rants.

Trolls also created phony groups operating under names such as Blacktivist and with the help of unwitting Americans actually organized various political rallies.

It is highly unlikely any of the 13 Russians will ever be brought to the United States for trial. So the indictments would seem to be more symbolic than legally enforceable.

But symbolic of what?

To be sure, the idea that agents of a foreign power would dedicate considerable resources of time, people and money to covertly infiltrate the U.S. electorate and feed them a bunch of hooey in order to manipulate public opinion is certainly worrisome.

Even more vexing is how many U.S. citizens fell for the scam.

Or put another way, many of the targets of the Russian internet hoax, who believed in the claptrap that slopped over the gunwales of their Twitter feeds, or Facebook pages, or Instagram accounts are the very same people who regard the New York Times, or NBC, or CNN, or, yes, the Tampa Bay Times as "fake news."

But if the Russian lies and deceit suggesting the country is on the verge of adopting sharia law arrived via Facebook — bracketed by a friend’s notice he was eating nachos at Taco Bell and the latest adorable picture of your sister’s cat chasing its tail — well, it must be true.

You have to give some grudging credit to the Russian trolls. They didn’t create American gullibility. They didn’t invent American civic illiteracy. They merely exploited it.

And the Russians had a more than willing co-conspirator in President Donald Trump, who on the campaign trail and even after he assumed office has deftly chipped away at the credibility of American institutions, including the justice system, the media and the integrity of our elections to sow distrust and fear that only he could fix. How’s that working out for you?

Americans ought to be skeptical about the fairness of our judicial system. Criticism of the media has been around ever since George Washington regarded the press as "infamous scribblers." And the results of elections will never satisfy especially the losing side.

But all these institutions are accountable. Court rulings can be appealed. News organizations publish corrections. Election results can be recounted.

Instead, millions of Americans blithely accepted as fact contrived messages anonymously sent to their targeted social media accounts largely because the fake content comported with their pre-existing biases.

In theory, presidential elections are supposed to be a discussion about policies and the direction of the country. Yes, the potential for boring cannot be overlooked.

Alas, the Russian hoaxers grasped our last election wasn’t about those things. It was about stoking paranoia. It was about chest-thumping. It was about how big stuff was.

Even more vexing is the fact that although the Russians have been exposed for criminally interfering in U.S. elections, there is every indication they plan to keep on doing it.

Why? Because they can. And because many Americans don’t bother to inform themselves, the Russians will be able to get away with it.

For some, an indictment is a shameful embarrassment. For the Russians, it is a badge of honor. And for many Americans, they don’t even know the difference.

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