Sophisticated My Ass
A lot has been made of the scale and importance of Russian interference in United States politics, particularly in the 2016 election. While I do not deny that this happened, that it happened at the direction of the Russian government, and that it had an impact on the election, I maintain that the scale of the impact is exaggerated, or at least that the terms and phrases frequently used to describe it are hyperbolic.
The phrase, the Russian attack on our election, is one that needs to be given a reality check and allowed to die. I’ve expounded on this previously, so I’ll only reiterate here that “attack” is too strong a word, one out of proportion with the actual actions of the presumed Russian agents and hackers. What seems by consensus to be known is that they bought online ads and ran social media accounts in order to sway voters. That’s an overreach and a violation of international law if done at the direction of the Russian government. But calling it an attack is extreme, and hypocritical when one reflects on the actions of the United States government and its agencies in the affairs of other countries. We have provided weaponry, funding, logistics to parties within foreign nations with the intent of challenging or overthrowing other parties. We’ve aided dictators and assisted in fomentation and execution of coups against democratically elected governments. We have literally attacked other nations. Our interventions have been bloody and devastating. That does not mean Russia did nothing wrong or shouldn’t be held accountable, or that we shouldn’t treat their interferences seriously and better protect against them in future. But keep things in perspective.
With that out of the way, let’s discuss the report published this week detailing the “sophistication” of the Russian interference campaign. This is another case where the language used to describe a real problem is exaggerated. Calling the social media campaigns presumably executed by Russian agents sophisticated gives them too much credit, and too little to the American public. It is the case that the Russians targeted their campaigns against specific groups, with posts meant to incite animus, encourage certain voting groups and discourage others. But calling that a sophisticated campaign is like calling scrambled eggs a complex cuisine. The rifts and prejudices within American society are not a mystery around the world. It’s not a secret that ours is a nation with deeply ingrained bigotry and extreme inequality. Recognizing this is not difficult. Exploiting it does not take brilliance. There’s nothing that sophisticated about it.
A focus of the report’s findings is the way that Black voters were targeted. Efforts were made by foreign agents, under the false guise of Black activist and empowerment groups, to discourage portions of the Black voting bloc from turning out and voting for Hillary Clinton. That is a bad thing and should not be overlooked.
But, when you look at the way this was done, it is hardly radical or sophisticated. More importantly, it doesn’t seem that the claims made are even untrue. The report cites posts claiming that Hillary Clinton does not care about Black people, that she only cares about votes, and that they might as well not vote. Is that inaccurate? Is that disinformation? As a claim coming from agents of a foreign government, that is a breach and should not be done. But the claim itself is based in reality. There are people that already had that perception. Sure, it could be the case that posts like that swayed some people. But people generally, let alone large groups, are not prone to be swayed into believing anything they wouldn’t otherwise. Hillary Clinton and the establishment she represents have a history of not representing and effectively advocating for Black people, for people of color in general, for those of lower economic and less affluent means in general. The only clear problem in this claim being made by a Russian front is the Russian part. If you or I made that or any similar observation, we’d be within our rights, and not wrong. We’d also not have a greater or lesser power to sway people, actually change their minds. Operations like this one may have had an effect in appealing to some people’s confirmation biases, but it is a leap to conclude that it alone convinced people to act against their own interests, let alone their own wills, and it is a leap to label it “sophisticated.”
Though often labeled a disinformation campaign, much of the information spread, while done with biased intent, was not actually false. Criticism of Clinton, the policies of her and her husband, of law enforcement, of police killings, of the criminal justice system, of mass incarceration, of racism, inequality and injustice in our society are based on real and valid problems. Targeting a campaign used to highlight those problems, granted for ill intent, does the dishonest disservice of overlooking these real problems.
More importantly, while Russians may have helped contribute to a lack of investment in the Clinton campaign from Black voters and other targeted marginalized groups, it is Americans who have done the most to disenfranchise and suppress Black voters. It could be argued that Russia aiding this effort is a form of collusion. But it cannot be understated, the fact that it is Americans, white American politicians primarily, who have gone to great lengths to ensure that Black people do not or cannot vote.
If blame is to be assigned here, it should be done commensurately with reality. Yes, Russia did something wrong, so did the massive, unregulated and generally unaccountable social media industry that aided their efforts, but we laid the groundwork and give them the fuel.
Most importantly, to my pedantic English nerd mind, let’s not lose our hold on the meaning of the word sophisticated.