The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

Fake News, Gullible Voters, and the Appetite for a 2016 Scapegoat

Over in the New York Times, Emily Parker provides Democrats — and everyone upset by the 2016 election, including Never-Trump Republicans — with a message they would probably rather not hear: Propaganda only works when there’s a significant enough segment of the population that wants to believe a particular message. It’s convenient and almost fun to blame the big tech companies — Twitter, Facebook, YouTube — for Russia’s efforts to influence the election and the 2016 results, but in the end, the voters were not brainwashed into any choices.

Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us. They reveal a society that is painfully divided, gullible to misinformation, dazzled by sensationalism, and willing to spread lies and promote hate. We don’t like this reflection, so we blame the mirror, painting ourselves as victims of Silicon Valley manipulation.

. . .Facebook and Twitter didn’t force users to share misinformation. Are Americans so easily duped? Or more alarming, did they simply believe what they wanted to believe?

Most of the social media materials the Russians were posting were not sophisticated messages or images. If anything, they were so over-the-top that they seem too ridiculous to be genuinely persuasive. Here’s one:

I mean, if you’re swayed by an image that suggests that Hillary Clinton is the devil and she wants to get into a boxing match with Jesus Christ . . . I’m pretty sure you were probably leaning against her already. The woman’s gotten into a heck of a lot of scandals, but I don’t think she’s ever explicitly challenged the Son of God to get into the UFC Octagon with her.

And if Hillary Clinton supporters really want to argue that they lost the votes of a segment of progressives because Bernie Sanders supporters were persuaded by muscular-Bernie cartoons . . . 

 . . . If that’s really the case, well, look, it’s not Russia’s, Trump’s, or the Republicans’ fault that a part of the Democratic base is a bunch of easily-distracted shallow idiots. If your voters are getting deterred by doodles, they never really were “your” voters.

Parker concludes, “The real crisis is Americans’ inability or unwillingness to sift fact from fiction, a problem that is worsened by the mainstream media’s loss of credibility when it comes to setting the record straight.” Bingo.

If you’re upset that a lot of Americans didn’t seem all that upset about Trump’s lies, broken pledges, and implausible promises during the 2016 campaign, go back and study the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012. Go back to “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.” People have absorbed the lesson that “politicians lie,” so they don’t particularly care when one they like lies. They may enjoy getting angry when one they dislike is caught in a lie, but that’s mostly because it reaffirms their preexisting opinion that the other side is full of terrible people who lie all the time. But only very rarely does a politician getting caught in a lie sufficient to get a supporter to abandon their candidate.

One of the painful lessons of 2016, and the rise of Trump, is that the people most connected and most influential in the leadership of both parties were seriously disconnected from what large swaths of the electorate were really thinking and feeling. There’s an important line or two in John Podhoretz’s column about Donna Brazile’s new book that details how the Democratic National Committee became an extension of Hillary Clinton’s campaign before the primary even started:

Brazile has done her party a service because this honest account of the maneuverings of the Clinton campaign is a necessary step for Democrats in determining how to gauge their own organizational and ideological health.

This is long overdue. Rather than try to figure out how they contributed themselves to their calamitous 2016 fate, they have spent a year indulging the fantasy that they really won the election and had it stolen from them.

Stolen by Russian ads on Facebook. Stolen by “collusion,” whatever that might be. Stolen by racism. In other words, they were robbed and the only thing that matters now is catching and jailing the robber.

Sorry, fellas. The 2016 election was the culmination, not the beginning, of a Democratic implosion.

This desire to undo Election Night 2016 continues to be one of the major driving forces in our politics. It’s what transformed grassroots Democrats into “the Resistance,” seeing the fairly elected president as an alien occupying force. It’s what drives much of the investigation to Trump. If Robert Mueller’s investigation ends with Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and a variety of other campaign hangers-on being sentenced to jail time, but not prove that Trump himself colluded or knew of collusion with Russia, I suspect many Democrats will be severely disappointed and maybe even insist that Mueller is complicit in some sort of cover-up. They want President Trump impeached, and they want him impeached as soon as possible. A significant number would want Pence and Ryan and any Republican in the line of succession impeached or removed as well.

Meanwhile, in Virginia . . . 

Hey, I thought the GOP was the party that was supposed to be tearing itself apart:

A liberal activist group on Thursday labeled Ralph Northam’s campaign “racist,” criticizing the Virginia Democrat running for governor a day after he declared that he would not support “sanctuary cities” for undocumented immigrants.

“Let’s be really clear: If Ralph Northam wins next Tuesday, it won’t be because he publicly backtracked on his commitment to protecting immigrant families, but in spite of it,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of Democracy for America, a grassroots progressive activist [group] based in Vermont.

Chamberlain went on to say the Northam campaign was running “the same old, broken, and racist playbook that lost Democrats over 1000 elected offices since 2008.”

That allegedly racist stance is . . . opposing sanctuary cities?

You can bet Republicans will bring up that topic early and often in the 2018 cycle. Most Democrats running for office will be hesitant to endorse localities refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities. This liberal activist group might find itself denouncing a lot of Democrats next year.

Who Really Controls the President’s Twitter Account?

Having said all that, this is the sort of thing that will get people thinking about social media companies as public utilities and something that needs government oversight:

The deactivation Thursday sparked deep and troubling questions about who has access to the president’s personal account, @realDonaldTrump, and the power that access holds. The deactivation also came at a time when the social network is under scrutiny for the role it played in spreading Russian propaganda during the 2016 presidential election.

Trump’s account disappeared at around 7 p.m. ET Thursday, when visitors to the page were met with the message, “Sorry, that page doesn’t exist!”

“The account was down for 11 minutes, and has since been restored,” Twitter’s statement read. “We are continuing to investigate and are taking steps to prevent this from happening again.”

But two hours later, the company admitted that the deactivation wasn’t an accident at all: A preliminary investigation revealed that the account was taken offline “by a Twitter customer support employee who did this on the employee’s last day.”

Twitter said it was conducting a full internal review.

If that employee can delete the account, could that employee put out fake tweets in the president’s name?

What would have happened if that departing employee had decided to Tweet out a message like “LAUNCH THE NUKES!!!” under the president’s name? No, that would not have begun the process of launching America’s nuclear arsenal, but it is easy to imagine an immediate panic. The North Korean regime might very well launch a military strike in an attempt to pre-empt an American attack.

In other words, Twitter has gained an enormous power over public discourse, and it’s still effectively controlled by people with the maturity and sense of responsibility of disgruntled teenage fast-food workers. Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben told us, “with great power comes great responsibility.” We hear that a lot, but we don’t see it in practice enough.

ADDENDA: Forget what I said yesterday, I really like Thursday Night Football now!

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