The Problem Isn’t Fake News From Russia. It’s Us.

Propaganda has long affected elections around the world because publics have an appetite for it.

An ice sculpture by the artistic duo Ligorano/Reese spells out the word “truth” in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 22. (Olivia Hampton/AFP/Getty Images)
An ice sculpture by the artistic duo Ligorano/Reese spells out the word “truth” in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sept. 22. (Olivia Hampton/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1934, the investigative journalist and novelist Upton Sinclair ran in the California gubernatorial election as part of the End Poverty in California movement (EPIC). He proposed a sweeping progressive agenda that featured the introduction of pensions, increased income and property taxes on wealthy Californians, and the creation of a state-run network of cooperatives that put the unemployed to work. Business leaders and trade associations around the country, alarmed by the socialist elements of his agenda, put forth millions of dollars to support incumbent Gov. Frank Merriam.

That outside money was used to promote lies and disinformation through leaflets, radio spots, newspaper hits, and a new media invention: partisan attack ads disguised as newsreels that ran before motion pictures in California movie theaters. The clips featured actors who, posing as ordinary citizens, recited scripted lines containing falsehoods about the EPIC movement and Sinclair. Such fake news proved highly effective; Merriam handily beat his opponent. And even before the vote, Sinclair wrote to Congress demanding an investigation into what he called “false propaganda,” adding, “Whether or not you sympathize with me on my platform is beside the point.” If the motion picture industry, he continued, “can be used to influence voters justly, it can be used to influence voters unjustly.” No investigation ever occurred; influence campaigns and disinformation simply became a normal and tolerated part of U.S. elections.

The role of disinformation in electoral campaigns, how it is transmitted and spread, and what influence it has on voters have appropriately been a matter of national debate since the 2016 presidential election. The most commonly identified perpetrators this time around are Russia, Iran, and China. The U.S. intelligence community, House and Senate intelligence committees, and special counsel Robert Muller have all exhaustively documented Russian-directed efforts to covertly undermine the election. In August, meanwhile, the cybersecurity company FireEye detailed with “moderate confidence” Iranian use of social media “to promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests.” Based on FireEye’s report, Facebook removed 652 associated pages, groups, and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Finally, speaking in front of the U.N. Security Council last week, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed that “we found that China has been attempting to interfere in our upcoming 2018 election coming up in November against my administration.” When pressed later that day for evidence, he said, “We have evidence. It’ll come out.” He puzzlingly added of Chinese President Xi Jinping, “He’s a friend of mine.”

When one dives into these allegations, what stands out is the lack of precision in identifying exactly what activities are troubling and thus should be prohibited. Indeed, there is a blending of adversaries’ purported goals with their alleged actions. For example, the assessment from the U.S. intelligence community warns of Russia’s “desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order” as if that, in itself, is a crime. That is akin to saying an American leader who appeared to support the same objective by maligning security allies, implementing protectionist trade policies, fomenting nationalism, and publicly noting adoration for authoritarian leaders should be legally silenced.

Similarly, the House intelligence committee report determined that since 2015, Moscow has “sought to sow discord in American society and undermine our faith in the democratic process.” Americans have already done the first to themselves. And shady political operatives have pursued the second goal since long before the widespread adoption of social media.

Finally, in August, Facebook declared that it banned alleged Iranian-sponsored accounts “because we want people to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook.” It is worth asking whether those who wrote the announcement had ever actually spent time on Facebook or Instagram.

The internet as a tool for malignant—and occasionally positive—political and societal purposes is the focus of an excellent new book, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, by the defense experts P.W. Singer and Emerson T. Brooking. It is a deeply researched page-turner. Simply by cataloguing the hate, lies, state propaganda, and government monitoring that the internet makes possible, it is also incidentally alarmist. Yet since troubling stories are uncovered, reported, and forgotten so quickly, the authors write, it is hard to recognize the consequences that the internet has on our civil liberties, personal safety, polity, and even national security and foreign policy.

It is within the domains of national security and foreign policy where the book makes its most far-reaching claim: The strategic use of the internet and, more specifically, social media is indeed like war. Subsequently, it is the world’s primary battlefield, and we are all witting or unwitting co-combatants and targets. This hypothesis may make those of us who grew up studying kinetic warfare and material balances of power uncomfortable, but internet-enabled information matters tremendously. The proof is that political and military leaders are constantly attempting and succeeding to use such information—to an extent and pace unprecedented in history—to achieve effects inside other countries. Those leaders can no longer disengage from foreign-directed attempts to influence their country’s population; they either shape perception or allow others to shape it.

How one interprets such efforts depends on the source, the messaging intent, and one’s tolerance for hypocrisy. As Dov H. Levin, now an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong, demonstrated with his dataset that tracked great powers’ interference in foreign elections between 1946 and 2000, the Soviet Union/Russia and the United States meddled—primarily covertly—in 117 out of 938 elections around the world, with Washington doing so more than twice as often (81 interventions) as Moscow (36). Of course, all great powers espouse universal norms that they violate in practice, and this naturally extends to interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs.

However, one person’s extremist fabulist is another’s brave truth-teller, just as one’s promotion of valid information is another’s weaponization of the same. The issue that Americans have chosen to ignore over the past 20 months is why the public has so deeply embraced and then spread alleged misinformation from China, Iran, or Russia. Politicians and pundits have chosen to blame the United States’ divides on its adversaries, but that is like trying to curb illegal drug use by focusing solely on the foreign countries where the drugs are produced (forgetting, of course, that many drugs are produced at home). The appetite for selective, biased, or partisan information is growing, and it will continue to do so given apparent trends in the U.S. public’s information literacy, critical thinking, and partisanship. The country cannot merely wish away its confirmation biases.

Shortly after his defeat at the polls, Sinclair published a book detailing the attacks on his campaign and the refusal of media outlets to publish any of his factual, clarifying rebuttals. In specific reference to newspaper editors refusing to comprehend or publish details about his old-age pension plan, Sinclair wrote the memorable line: “I used to say to our audiences: ‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!’” Whether for ideological, tribal, partisan, financial, or other reasons, Americans may simply not be interested in truly understanding and critiquing the information that they receive through their phones and computers, both during their day-to-day lives and before the upcoming midterm elections. Because of that, they will be increasingly the targets of “like wars” by aggressors foreign and domestic.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.