BY GEORGE FRIEDMAN
Since Election Day, Americans’ focus has shifted to something that’s considered a new phenomenon.
Some suspect that false news may have swayed the US presidential election. Some also claim this false news was planted by Russian intelligence under orders of President Vladimir Putin, who allegedly supported Trump’s election.
Given that a recount of votes in some states is likely—with some saying Russians might have hacked voting machines—it’s no longer a matter of politics but of geopolitics.
It’s a serious claim. However, the premise that false news was a decisive factor in this election is a bit of a stretch. And I’ll tell you why.
Witnessing propaganda first-hand
I was personally caught in a bit of Russian disinformation following the events in Ukraine. While visiting Moscow, I was interviewed by the leading business paper there, Kommersant.
Discussing the US role in Ukraine, I answered a question by saying, “If this was a coup, it was the most blatant coup in history, since the Americans were quite open in supporting the demonstrators.”
Kommersant published it fairly close to what I said. But Sputnik, a Russian government outlet, quoted me as saying that Ukraine “was the most blatant coup in history.”
Saying it was taken out of context is so lame. The problem is that I was a completely unimportant observer, and Sputnik promoted me to someone significant.
Otherwise, who would pay attention to anything I said?
So the Ukraine story left newspapers and entered the web, where it was incredibly widely circulated and totally ignored. I personally was hoping to pick up some subscribers from it.
Alas, no one has ever brought up the incident with me—even though it was retweeted all over the place and is still out there.
Social media’s echo chamber
Social media has two defects from the standpoint of disinformation. The first is that people tend to only read and follow things with which they already agree. The number of people who consume information with which they disagree is fairly small.
Social media is vast but has massive walls in terms of interest and technology. That means the only people who believed I said what Sputnik quoted were people who already thought it was a blatant coup.
A million views worldwide means mostly that everyone who is ideologically aligned had seen it. The very ideological divide that frightens us serves to contain news in social media.
The second defect is the sheer volume of noise on the internet. In the 1950s, three networks existed, along with a few newspapers that others copied. It was much harder to plant a story on CBS, but the output of CBS was extremely loud with few competing noises.
It is now hard to hear anything above the roar, and the chances of reaching those you want to reach—and persuading them of something in the few characters allowed by a tweet—is limited.
The internet is a wonderful place to communicate with those who agree and know how to find you. It is not so good at finding and persuading those who don’t agree.
So, the story of an FBI agent who had been investigating Hillary Clinton and was found dead with his wife, likely would be believed by someone who thought Clinton was a monster.
Someone pro-Clinton—or even neutral—likely never saw it, and certainly wouldn’t have believed it. The idea that these stories were decisive in the presidential election is dubious
It is not surprising that Putin would attempt to play with the election. First, he believes the US is constantly intruding on domestic Russian politics by forming small political groups (nongovernmental organizations) to shape elections. He undoubtedly wanted to pay back the US for that.
If Putin was involved in this disinformation, it would not be a move of strength, but rather weakness. I already have explained in recent articles why the Russians are weak and why Putin wants to project an appearance of significance where he can.
He did manage to make himself appear looming over the US election, but the ability of disinformation to determine elections or other things is severely limited.
Lies are primarily believed by those who want to believe them and frequently make opponents stronger by fueling a sense of outrage over the fact that they are lies. They basically leave everything in place.
I regard the false news issue as a red herring. False news has always existed, and some of it comes from governments. It never has been particularly effective in changing the behavior of nations.
I would strongly argue that social media, with its tribes and noise, makes effective disinformation that much harder. But as the US is in a mood to panic, it’s as good a subject as any.
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