What will Americans learn when they find out 3,000 politically flammable ads they saw on social media were generated by 470 fake accounts, all originated by Russian KGB agents?
Nothing. Americans love an echo chamber.
And that is what Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever other social media are out there have become. It’s a series of echo chambers and we’re all doing our damnedest to shut out anything that dissonates with our own preconceived notions.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Below are two ads proven to have been planted by the KGB — I’m using “KGB” as a synecdoche for whatever larger apparatus Russia employed — that saw fairly widespread exposure during the 2016 presidential election campaign. I grabbed the screen shots from Business Insider’s web site.
The ads are typical of the emotionally inflammatory garbage that was being dumped all over the internet during the election cycle. And both serve a single purpose by actually doing two things at once. The ad on the left (1) echoes the superstition-laden image of Jesus personally combating Satan over the soul of the United States (extra points for the Jesus-loves-America appeal) and (2) offers said image for derision and mocking by those less … um … superstitious. The ad on the right does the opposite by (1) giving Hillary lovers the warm, tingly feeling that our gal stands with the demonized innocent (extra points for validating the big-tent philosophy of liberals) and (2) irritating the hell out of conservatives who, U.S. Constitution be damned, want to ban everyone but white Christians from ever sullying our shores again. (Yes, I know my narrative betrays my philosophical bent; I’m just getting started.)
The purpose they serve is neither to elect Donald Trump nor defeat Hillary Clinton, although it’s known the Russians detested Clinton. The purpose is simply to drive an ideological wedge even deeper between Americans on two sides of a vast political divide. And we let them do it.
The ads seem unremarkable to us because we’ve seen so much homemade crap like it already. Their existence is not actually unremarkable, though; in fact, their existence is all the more remarkable because they so closely imitate the home-grown garbage. And because there were at least 3,000 of them.
When we learned of this, I asked my wife, “What do you think will happen when all of the Trumpers find out all of those ads were created by the KGB?” Her reply: “Nothing. It’s what they already believed.” It was the most depressing thought I’d had all day. But she’s right; just because some Russian said it doesn’t make it less “true,” and I doubt seriously that anyone on either side of the divide — certainly anyone on the fringes — will give a single thought to why the Russians would echo our own bigotry back to us. I’ll explain that in a bit, but first — how did this happen?
I blame television news. One of the great disservices of television news has been to dumb-down the news consumer and create a false sense of credibility. Social media only capitalizes on that ignorance. Even if you don’t remember Walter Cronkite and Eric Severeid and David Brinkley, you are influenced today by their legacy; the short, visually stimulating, shallow content of television reporting. Today’s newscasts are meant more to show off the technological and logistical abilities of everything from your hometown news crew to the media giants than they are to give you real information you can use to make rational, logical decisions. Public Broadcasting is the only televised news platform today that offers anything more than glimpses of the most horrific images available. Never mind CBS’s 60 Minutes or ABC’s 20/20 or NBC’s Dateline; as good as they are, each offers only a toe dipped into the facts and complexity of any major news story.
For the most part, however, the big three TV networks have worked hard to at least get most of their facts straight and in doing so have earned a modicum of credibility. If it was on CBS Evening News, it must be true because Walter Cronkite would never lie to us. Not that there were a lot of facts, but the facts they had at least had been double-checked and were as “true” as anything can be.
Then cable news networks came along and none of them put an iota of effort into fact-checking. CNN’s primary purpose was to put as much content before as many eyes as possible to grab ratings, exactly the kind of thing the traditional TV networks had resisted for decades. Fact-checking wasn’t — and still isn’t — a hallmark of CNN newscasts. And, unfortunately, there’s no measure of factual credibility of news outlets today, only measures of perceived credibility. And that has resulted in some badly skewed polls, like this one:
Yes, it’s from the Pew Research Center, which is a pretty reliable blue-ribbon poll — that is, you can bet that what they show is exactly what they found. But what did they find? They found that several hundred randomly selected people think all of the major news networks, including CNN and MSNBC, are to the left of center, and that PBS, NPR, and the New York Times are practically radical left-wingers. But look at the right side — Fox News, Drudge Report, Breitbart and the rest didn’t exist 20 years ago. Wipe those off the board and suddenly Wall Street Journal is a bastion of right-wing extremism and the whole center moves back to the left. And yes, there was a time when the major news networks were thought to skew somewhat to the conservative side of things.
There are similar charts all over the internet that show various degrees of credibility for various news sources, but the all have one fatal flaw: They’re measures of the perceptions of American news consumers, not measures of any actual, objective analysis. I would go so far as to say there is no objective analysis of news credibility and there never will be, and here’s why: Any such analysis would have to be done by serious scholars using an agreed-upon set of criteria for factuality and information value. This second one is crucial because anyone can show video of Republican senators saying the tax bill is the greatest thing since sliced bread and then video of Democratic senators saying it’s a stinking pile of crap, and pretend they’ve done their job. What they haven’t done is told the viewer which side is more correct, and if you think that’s not important, take another look at the graphic above. Americans think Fox News is only slightly to the right of center. That means any attempt by scholars to develop any criteria of news factuality and then rate the media according to that criteria is doomed to failure because any American to lives to the right of the zero mark in the above graphic will automatically dismiss it as the liberal fantasy of Birkenstock-wearing academic eggheads in stuffed shirts and man buns.
In other words, no amount of information or data or fact-checking will move anyone from their firmly-fixed belief, and that’s where the Russians come in. They know that a nation divided against itself cannot move forward, not in civil rights, not in technological development, and absolutely not in world leadership. Because the United States is an open society and almost everyone’s opinion is allowed to air, we will spend more time squabbling among ourselves about why I am right and you are wrong than we will actually addressing any of our serious problems. This isn’t just a national phenomenon, it’s a local one, too. Log onto any one of the local-based Facebook pages (Sterling has several) and you’ll find deep schisms in every community, far deeper than have ever existed before. It’s only natural that, once you’ve decided someone is wrong about gun control or tax reform or health care, they’re wrong about everything else, too, including whether to raise local taxes to improve local schools.
Instead, we will constantly seek out those web sites and television programs that validate our own opinions, whether we’ve spent any time fact-checking them or not. We’ll trim our “friends” lists to exclude those whose ignorance we just cannot abide (yes, I’ve done it, too) because we’ll already know there’s no way to engage them reasonably. We’ll eventually end up in our own echo chambers, constantly passing around the same assumptions and conclusions and being grateful that there are people out there who understand our truth, whatever the hell it might be.
I don’t have an answer. Maybe there isn’t one, and that’s a damn depressing thought. But it will continue to be our lot until all Americans learn to stop, look at what they believe, and ask themselves, “Is it possible that I’m wrong? Could I be mistaken? Is it possible that people I’ve trusted have been lying to me just to get me to watch them?”
Yeah, that’ll never happen.