Fighting the New Cold War

As someone who tries to look away from the news that bombards me from every public and private corner, like a train wreck impinging on my better instincts, I catch bits and pieces of the news on a continual basis – kind of like an unwanted stream of consciousness – that I would rather ignore. But I can’t. Trump, of course, is lurking in just about every news corner.

Trump and Russia are two of the most persistent and pernicious news themes today. Trump is mentioned together in nearly every news story on Russia’s meddling in American politics. I don’t think I am speaking out of school to say that Russia’s meddling in American politics is fact. We are beyond that question, aren’t we? But there is more to this story than Trump.

A certain concerted effort emerges from “the” news media (as some like to say with pejorative intent) to link Trump nefariously to the Russian influence, and they well may be right about that connection. But that isn’t the full story. It isn’t all about trump (though, for a man who seems to live by the motto that any publicity, even bad publicity, is good, Trump (and the people who love him and hate him) might think so).

The bigger story here, and the one we should spend a little more time focusing on, is the fact that Russia is meddling in our political, social and cultural business through social media. They are targeting us!

This is a 21st Century version of the Cold War, complete with modern social media spies. The 20th Century moles have become 21st Century trolls, and all we do is talk about Trump – love him or hate him.

Come on people! Focus! What is Russia doing in our business? And why are we not more riled up about it? Why do we care more about the degree to which Trump is or is not involved than we are that Russia is targeting us in the first place?

Of course, it is big news that a presidential candidate would so foolishly and foolhardily cozy up to the Russian bear like that and make whatever deals he might have made with the Russian devil to get elected, but that is really all secondary to the more concerning issue that Russia is meddling so deeply and nefariously into our political, social and cultural psyche – so much that we think Trump is the story!

(Isn’t that what the Russians are going for? Are we not playing into their hands? It’s not like they are really trying to hide it.)

Trump will come and go. He may already be on the way out. He is already becoming a lame duck in his second lap around the sun as president. But, Russia is not going anywhere, at least probably not in my lifetime, or even my kids’ lifetimes.

The other critical story (after the fact that Russia is targeting us and influencing us) is that we are so easily influenced!

Again, Trump and Trump’s supporters seem to be the only chapter in this story that most people want to talk about. No doubt, many Trumpers swallowed the caviar – hook, line and sinker – but only an arrogant (and naïve) person would say, “I wouldn’t be fooled.”

If the last election season and the Kavanaugh debacle have taught us anything, they have demonstrated that Americans are easily manipulated at our point of bias. And both sides claim that the shoe is on the other foot. As a person who finds either side equally uncomfortable these days, I am here to say that both sides are deluded on this point.

Confirmation bias is no respecter of persons.

Our distracted and short-attention-span lives are perfect fodder for the meme-driven, click bait tactics that have made the Russian attack so successful. The fact that the Russian attack hit so near the heart of our political, social and cultural identity is not “THE” story is proof of the success of the attack. The Trojan horse has been discovered inside our collective castle, and it is only incidental to the stories we care about – the stories that the horse is feeding to us.

The truth is more insidious than any collaboration between Trump and the Russians. The truth is that we are incredibly susceptible to manipulation. The truth is that it isn’t just Trump supporters who are susceptible. We all are. As stated in a recent New York times opinion piece, “There is no way to quantify exactly what this barrage of disinformation and manipulation did to American politics. But it should be obvious that what happens online influences our perceptions of, and behavior in, the offline world.

People have been incited to violence by social media propaganda on both sides of the proverbial political spectrum through that propaganda. We should all be aware by now that ISIS used social media to alienate Westerners, target them and cultivate them for recruitment. Russia targeted African Americans and the alt-right. The Israeli government was even influenced by social media support of Hamas in determining when or whether to conduct airstrikes in the Middle East. We are all the puppets on their strings.

The Cold War didn’t go away. It went into hibernation. It emerged from its wistful slumber in full force in the 21st Century in the form of social media campaigns. “Influencer marketing” is a billion-dollar industry, and commercial consumers are not the only targeted market. The Russian influence through social media isn’t isolated to the presidential campaign. “Russian interference through social media — contrary to the suggestion of many prominent tech executives — is a chronic, widespread and identifiable condition that we must now aggressively manage.

A recent report to a Senate committee reveals that “Russia was able to masquerade successfully as a collection of American media entities, managing fake personas and developing communities of hundreds of thousands, building influence over a period of years and using it to manipulate and exploit existing political and societal divisions.” Maybe they struck oil with the last presidential election, but it has been going on for years.

What they are doing, in addition to helping Trump get elected, is stirring up animosities, dividing and alienating people, sowing chaos, discord, tension and hostility. Significantly, they are not creating anything; they are “exploiting existing political and societal divisions.”

These words are reminiscent of the words of Abraham Lincoln who presided over the most divisive time our nation has faced to date: “a house divided against itself cannot stand”.

We are very much a house divided today, though the lines of division are not directional, north and south. The lines of division run through the heart of our political, societal and cultural body. If we allow ourselves to become unglued along those lines of division, we are seceding to the propagandists’ power.

We can’t let that happen.

As a person who has consciously tried to stake out the middle ground, I see the division widening on either side of me, leaving fewer and fewer people in the middle. More and more people seem to be drawn to the magnetic pulls. I was dismayed at the recent Illinois gubernatorial race in which two multi-millionaire candidates bought their parties’ poll positions. These guys are two sides of the same coin, but only something like 1% of the voters voted for an alternative candidate.

The middle ground seems lonely these days, but I dare say the middle grounders are needed to pull people in off the extreme limbs. We can’t let the Russians, or anyone else, divide us. The more polarized we become, the more we are feeding into the very goals of the Cold War tactics that threaten to undo us from within, stirred by manipulators from without.

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