Over at the New York Times, Scott Shane has a report detailing how Russian operatives tried to influence the U.S. political scene through the use of social media (“How Unwitting Americans Encountered Russian Operatives Online”). I was struck by the slapdash and amateurish nature of these efforts. Even at the time, many speculated that the legions of social-media trolls who came out to play in 2016 were part of a coordinated effort, with bots playing a central role. But that leaves us with a more troubling question: If such a pathetic, shambolic campaign of mischief-making has managed to cause so much panic, what could a truly determined outsider pull off?
I’m reminded of a 1997 essay by Samuel P. Huntington, which I wrote about for Slate early last year in an article titled “Our Own Worst Enemy.” Huntington argued that as the U.S. became a more culturally diverse society, its “creedal consensus” would grow more vulnerable. Without a creedal consensus to foster national unity, Americans would be in constant search of outside enemies to pull off the same feat.
But of course the absence of a creedal consensus would make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify a truly unifying enemy. Huntington observed that the U.S. had already “become less of an actor and more of an arena,” in which foreign entities compete to gain influence. He anticipated a world in which the U.S. would fall prey to foreign powers seeking to exploit its internal divisions. Needless to say, not everyone will accept Huntington’s argument. It must be said, though, that the furor over fake news suggests Huntington’s dark future has already arrived.
One way of thinking about the fake-news fracas is that it’s a reflection of the U.S. becoming a less exceptional society. In some ways, our recent experience parallels that of smaller, less influential countries, as Branko Milanovic points out in a recent blog post.
For most of the post-war era, comparatively well-funded and high-quality English-language media outlets dominated global news. “Not only were Western media totally able to influence what (say) people in Zambia thought of Argentina or the reverse (because there was probably next to zero local coverage available to somebody living in Zambia regarding what is happening in Argentina; and the reverse),” he writes, “they were able to influence even the narrative within Zambia or within Argentina.”
The Soviet Union’s collapse proved the validity of the arguments that the BBC, Radio Free Europe, and others had put forward. And so, Western outlets became even more dominant. But hegemony wasn’t to last. Thanks to the Internet, media in any language could be viewed anywhere in the world. Al Jazeera was among the first to jump into the fray, with other channels soon behind. It wasn’t long before they were competing not only in the global news arena but were also going after market share in the West: Witness the creation of Al Jazeera–US, Russia Today, and CCTV.
“And this is why,” Milanovic concludes, “we are now going through a phase of hysterical reaction to the ‘fake news’: because it is the first time that non-Western media are not only creating their own global narratives but are also trying to create narratives of America.” It might be that, once the hysteria about fake news subsides, Americans will come to terms with the fact that the United States is a country like any other: open to influence from abroad. Otherwise, Milanovic believes, fear of outside influence could lead to the fracturing of the global Internet into smaller national webs: Great Firewalls for everyone.