In retrospect, perhaps it was naive to think that after arguably the most acerbic and bizarre presidential race in our nation’s history, controversies would cease and a peaceful, uncontested transfer of power would bring an end to the frenzy. One could be forgiven for hoping that things would quiet down and faith in our country would be restored. Surely, the American people could rebound from the divisiveness of the campaign and regroup around the core values of our republic. Once the circus left town, then peace would return.
Who knew that Russian hackers would keep the calliopes blaring?
Earlier this week, the CIA issued a report describing its consensus determination that Russian hackers broke into accounts associated with the Democratic National Committee. The Russians didn’t intend simply to disrupt our political process. Instead, they acted to improve the chances that one of the candidates – Donald Trump – would win. In fact, it now appears that Vladimir Putin, for whom Mr. Trump seems to have a fondness at a distance, was directly involved in coordinating the attacks. The attacks were designed to release a steady trickle of negative news at least peripherally tied to Hillary Clinton to intensify her negative image and thereby reduce support for her candidacy.
It worked. Although Ms. Clinton won the popular vote by 2.5 million, she lost the Electoral College vote. A swing of just 60,000 votes would have reversed that outcome. Did the negative news spigot the hackers forged make the difference? It is impossible to tell. But the relatively small number of votes that decided the Electoral College outcome and the fact that 90 million eligible voters didn’t vote certainly leave room for wonder.
So, where do we go from here? If it was so easy for a foreign state – and a traditional foe – to sway our election by turning public opinion, isn’t our democracy now severely compromised?
Yes, it is. In this era of hyper-politicization and social media parochialism, where we look to the news not to inform us but rather to vindicate our beliefs, those who influence which beliefs receive that vindication, regardless of the truthfulness of the associated message, will control the outcome.
In this election, it appears that Russian hackers exerted that control masterfully. They took the notion of an “October surprise”, a stunning single development that could perturb the balance, and morphed it into a time-release anti-Hillary toxin that did its damage gradually rather than in one shocking step change. This campaign’s more traditional October surprise – Trump’s Access Hollywood tape – gradually faded as the controlled release of bad Clinton news slowly but surely intensified anti-Clinton sentiment. An already unpopular candidate became even less popular and, in the eyes of enough people, less deserving of their vote.
One would think there was ample material from Trump’s past that could have been dripped out in a similarly controlled way rather than as a series of indignation-inspiring incidents that quickly faded into the background. But that trickle never started dripping, even though it appears the hackers tried at least half-heartedly to compromise the Republican National Committee, too.
By time-releasing one negative news item after the next, it seems that hackers transformed the “October surprise” into the “October contagion”, poisoning one candidate’s chances with a regimen of time-released toxin. It is possible that strategy swayed enough people either to change their vote or not to vote at all.
How do we fix this? One approach involves automated fact-checking. Google recently added fact-check labels to stories it carries on its news site. Google’s fact-check rating tries to ascertain the source’s reputation as a news or opinion site. It likely will be refined over time to consider other variables that try to capture the source’s degree of perceived bias. News is dispensed from and into bubbles, but not all bubbles are equally trustworthy. Fact checking seeks to address this.
Ultimately, I don’t believe Google’s approach will work. In the same way that people today flippantly dismiss news sources as biased if they disagree with them, we’ll soon belittle certain fact-check algorithms as part of a vast liberal or conservative conspiracy, because, of course, that’s what we do today to reject any information we find inconvenient. One fact checker might become the equivalent of Huffington Post and the other The Blaze, and we’ll be right back where we started.
Left to our own devices, we will call out bias whenever it helps us defend our world view. This knee-jerk response works splendidly to soften step-change events: those discrete, oh-my-God-can-you-believe-what-X-said-this-time occurrences, because we can quickly put them out of mind by lumping them in with all the other sensationalist claims we hear. But that doesn’t work nearly as well when a steady, slow stream of bad news sweeps in an insidious sense of gloom. Acceptance gradually replaces support; apathy slowly supplants acceptance. This election’s dynamic demonstrated the drip effect quite dramatically and gave us an outcome virtually no one predicted.
To solve this, we need to shift our focus. Let’s first accept the casual fatalism that “they’re all crooks.” Let’s take that as a given. They are all dishonest. They all have a past that would make Caligula blush. They all have a skeleton closet. Throw all that out. Ignore it. If they all come from the same sordid place, it doesn’t matter which cesspool they call home. Their past doesn’t matter. That slow, steady, Mr. Coffee drip of hacker-exposed scandal? If we can ignore it, as we should, let it happen in the background with no one listening. Let it be the irrelevant footnote it should be. Then, the winner won’t be determined by the target of the more successful hacker, because what the hackers unearth won’t matter.
Instead, let us focus exclusively on the candidates’ plans: substantive, detailed, publicly vetted plans that demonstrate a clear vision and how to achieve it. Let us demand this of our candidates. That will require us to ignore the soundbites, to eschew the tweets, to pay attention to substance. Does this candidate have a clue on how to achieve what he or she claims is a priority for them? To demonstrate this, a candidate must be informed and thoughtful and pragmatic, all of which, in my view, are hacker-proof traits that the inevitable and expected scandals, of which there are probably many, can’t invalidate. Bad people can articulate and enact good plans. Let them. And apply Google’s data-science-driven automated fact checkers to identify the pros and cons of those plans and estimate their feasibility and probable impacts.
Is the American public up to this? Can we ignore the yellow journalism, the candy we all crave, and critically consider substance? Judging by the way we were manipulated this campaign, I have my doubts. But if the answer indeed proves negative, then we must answer the “Is Democracy dead?” question in the same discouraging way, because we’ll forever be at the mercy of which hackers do the most damage. To take the hackers out of it, we have to be smarter and less easily distracted. We have to focus on the plan.