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How Americans became vulnerable to Russian disinformation

Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election was historic, but it was also symptomatic of bigger challenges facing Americans. A population that does not fully understand its own democracy should concern not only civics teachers, but national security experts as well. The US didn’t need Putin to deliver that lesson. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson warned, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

analysis Updated: Nov 08, 2017 15:49 IST
A couple of Boise State Broncos fans wear Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin masks during second half action between the Wyoming Cowboys and the Boise State Broncos, October 21, 2017, Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho
A couple of Boise State Broncos fans wear Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin masks during second half action between the Wyoming Cowboys and the Boise State Broncos, October 21, 2017, Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho (AFP)

As the US marks the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s election, the question of how Trump won still commands attention, with Russia’s role moving increasingly to center stage. Each new revelation in the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 campaign brings the vulnerability of the US democratic process into sharper focus.

Last week, Congress unveiled legislation that would force social media giants to disclose who buys online advertising, thereby closing a loophole that Russia exploited during the election. But making amends through technical fixes and public promises to be better corporate citizens will solve only the most publicised problem.

The tougher challenge will be strengthening institutions that are vital to a democracy – specifically, civics education and local journalism. Until gains are made in these areas, the threat to America’s democratic process will grow, resurfacing every time the country votes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operatives chose wisely in mounting their social media attack. Facebook hosts nearly 80% of all mobile social media traffic, while Google accounts for close to 90% of all online-search-related advertising. By inundating these two platforms with automated messages from bogus user accounts, Russia was able to stoke discord along economic, racial, and political lines.

Moreover, they did it cheaply. According to one analysis, with only modest ad purchases on Facebook, Russian agents gained access to a goldmine of online advertising data – such as Facebook’s customer targeting software – which enabled the “sharing” of Russia’s fake news hundreds of millions of times. At one point during this clandestine assault, an estimated 400,000 bots – software applications that run automated scripts – sent millions of fictitious political messages, which in turn generated some 20% of all Twitter traffic during the final month of the campaign.

It is bad enough that the technology world’s marquee names were not prepared to parry foreign meddling in America’s most important election. But the social media giants’ persistent denial of responsibility for the volume of distorted and false information delivered as news, even as Russia’s role has grown clearer, is more troubling.

Strip away the technobabble about better algorithms, more transparency, and commitment to truth, and Silicon Valley’s “fixes” dodge a simple fact: Its technologies are not designed to sort truth from falsehoods, check accuracy, or correct mistakes. Just the opposite: They are built to maximise clicks, shares, and “likes.”

Despite pushing to displace traditional news outlets as the world’s information platforms, social media’s moguls appear content to ignore journalism’s fundamental values, processes, and goals. It is this irresponsibility that co-sponsors of the recent advertising transparency bill are seeking to address.

Still, Russia’s success in targeting American voters with bogus news could not have succeeded were it not for the second problem: A poorly educated electorate susceptible to manipulation. The erosion of civics education in schools, the shuttering of local newspapers – and the consequent decline in the public’s understanding of issues and the political process – conspire to create fertile ground for the sowing of disinformation.

Consider the evidence: In 2005, an American Bar Association survey found that 50% of Americans could not correctly identify the country’s three branches of government. By the time the Annenberg Center for Public Policy asked the same question in 2015, the percentage of such respondents had grown to two thirds, and a staggering 32% could not name a single branch. This slippage is apparently age-dependent; a 2016 study of Americans with university degrees found that those over 65 years of age know far more about how their government works than those under 34.

There is a clear correlation between democratic illiteracy and a de-emphasis on civics, government, and history education in schools. In 2006, for example, a national study that tracks student performance in various subjects found that only a quarter of America’s 12th graders were proficient in civics. A decade later, that percentage had sunk below 25%.

Not surprisingly, overall educational quality and access to basic civics coursework have also suffered in recent years. In 2011, a think tank that ranks the 50 states on the rigour of their high schools’ US history courses gave 28 states failing grades. A 2016 survey of 1,000 liberal arts colleges found that only 18% required a US history or government course to earn a degree.

High school or university courses by themselves will not keep gullible voters from falling for bogus news or inflammatory disinformation. But the viral spread of fake news stories initiated by Russian agents made one thing clear: An electorate lacking a basic civics education is more likely to fall for provocations designed to inflame partisan tensions.

Changes in the news industry are increasing that risk. As Internet giants siphon away advertising revenue from traditional media outlets, social media have become many people’s main source of news. Traditional news organisations, especially local newspapers, are steadily disappearing, shrinking voters’ access to information that is vital to making informed political decisions.

The numbers are striking. Since 2004, 10% of all small-market newspapers have closed or merged. Of those that survive, over a third have changed ownership, concentrating the industry into fewer hands. The result has been layoffs, cost-cutting, and diminished reporting on national and local issues.

As for the media’s civic responsibility, that, too, seems to have suffered. The managers’ manual from one investment firm that owns three daily and 42 weekly newspapers does not mince words: “Our customer is the advertiser,” the document states. “Readers are our customers’ customers,” so “we operate with a lean newsroom staff.”

Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US presidential election was historic, but it was also symptomatic of bigger challenges facing Americans. A population that does not fully understand its own democracy should concern not only civics teachers, but national security experts as well. The US didn’t need Putin to deliver that lesson. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free,” Thomas Jefferson warned, “it expects what never was and never will be.”

Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst and director of public affairs, served as National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and Chief of Station in Asia.

The views expressed are personal