Tag Archives: 2016 Election

Finally!

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about this New Yorker article about a new book called Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to get around to reading it for a while and only now have I got the time to actually give my take on it. While I haven’t been able to examine the book’s arguments in detail, I have to say that this seems to be the first time I’ve seen anyone actually try to attempt to measure the influence of Russian propaganda on the 2016 election with some semblance of scientific rigor. Those of you who follow this blog know that I have often complained about how many of those pundits and politicians who express such confidence that Russia swung the election to Trump seem to avoid expending even minimal effort to try to substantiate their claims. Specifically, nobody seemed to be interested in going out to those key battleground states to survey voters who changed their votes to Trump, a third party, or who decided not to vote at all, and then try to determine the extent to which these people had been exposed to Russian propaganda, e.g. via Facebook.

To be fair, it doesn’t seem like Jamieson’s book does that specific thing, but it does present an interesting case. For one thing, it points out that in those key Midwestern states where Hillary lost unexpectedly, the deck was stacked against Hillary when it came to getting votes. Anyone trying to influence the election against her had an advantage because they didn’t need to push people to vote for her opponent or a third party but rather they could just as easily convince people not to vote at all. This is reminiscent of an old axiom about guerrilla warfare- the insurgent doesn’t need to win; they just need to not lose.

If you look at a lot of Russian propaganda surrounding the election, you’ll notice that a good deal of it is aimed at people who are either left wing or at least left enough to reject Trump. But the Russian propaganda on Facebook, for example, seems to be aimed at keeping those people from voting for Hillary. Some stuff could be construed as anti-GOP or even anti-Trump, but I’ve yet to see anything from that period which is pro-Hillary, or more accurately, anything that would support the idea that as bad a candidate as she is, she’s at least better than Trump.

Now before anyone suggests that this is setting up an excuse for the Hillary campaign, take note that if Russian influence played a decisive role, it could only do so because the election was so close, far closer than it should have been. Judging from the article, one of the main factors in swinging the election was the hacking of the DNC emails, which contained a lot of material relating to Hillary’s political baggage. In other words, a candidate without such baggage would have been harder to bring down. So there’s no letting the Democratic party off the hook even if this book is 100% correct in its hypothesis. If Russian influence swung the campaign it was almost certainly because the weakness of the party and its candidate made it vulnerable to such influence in the first place.

Like I’ve said about Kremlin propaganda dozens of times before- it is effective only where vulnerabilities exist. Corruption, lack of accountability, inequality, and a refusal by politicians to address any of those problems inevitably spreads the rot in which the bullshit of RT, Sputnik, and the Internet Research Agency take root and sprout. Address those aforementioned problems, and people will see the propaganda for what it is- nonsensical fringe crap from a corrupt, authoritarian, desperate regime that has nothing of value to offer the outside world.

And am I sold on the idea that Russia swung the 2016 election, after all this? Well I haven’t read the book so I can’t say for sure. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever know exactly what happened. Too much time has already passed and we have much bigger issues to deal with. What I will say is that the idea that it had an impact can no longer be discounted.

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Memory Loss

Soon I’ll be turning 34, still well short of what’s considered “middle-age” in our time. And despite this, I have to say that I’m starting to notice my memory slipping a bit. I’m not talking about memory loss that you associate with old age; most of what I forget or mix up are just trivial details. It still feels weird though. Five to ten years ago I could remember things going back to early childhood as vividly as a movie. Now those details start to blur and fade.

Of course I suspect this is entirely natural. If there’s anything unusual about my case it’s probably related to the radically different lives I’ve led over the years, moving from state to state, pre-army versus post-army, and leaving the US to spend the bulk of my adult life abroad. Taking all that into account, it’s not a huge deal if I can’t remember any but one of the teachers I had in 2nd or 3rd grade, for example. But suppose it was worse. Suppose I’d stayed in the US all my life, and at the age of 33 I’d somehow forgotten who was president of the US prior to Obama, who controlled the congress during most of that administration, and everything that administration had done during its tenure. I suspect I’d have more reason to be alarmed in that case.

I’m writing about memory today because while my interactions with Trump supporters have been mercifully few, those that have occurred are positively fascinating, if not mindboggling. To be sure, what I am experiencing seems to apply to many conservative types, regardless of whether or not they support Trump, but with the Trump supporters the memory disorder seems to be most acute. But whatever the case, I am simply astonished by the inability of these people to recall events in what is the relatively recent past. I could understand it if they were elderly, or even pushing 60, but we’re talking about people around my age and slightly younger.

The perfect example of this can be seen in the attacks on Hillary’s war record. Trump supporters have been crowing about Hillary Clinton’s support for the Iraq invasion, as well as her support for military intervention during her tenure as secretary of state. She is a “hawk,” they say. The problem with this is that the people calling her a hawk now, with a few notable exceptions, were themselves hawks or supporters of hawks, and their own candidate also speaks like a hawk.

Hillary’s enthusiastic support for the Iraq War is one of her worst deeds as a politician. This is why many leftists such as myself can’t stand her- she puts her finger in the wind and goes along with the status quo. The problem with these Trump supporters, however, is that they seem to forget that Hillary was going along with their party’s war. Republicans controlled the White House and the house at the time. They would later control both until 2007.

bush

Trump supporters: Do you know who this man is and what he did?

During the run-up to the Iraq War nearly to the end of Bush’s administration, if you opposed the war on any grounds most of these rabid conservatives would call you a traitor. “You don’t like war? Love it or leave it, hippie! Move to Russia with all the other commies!”  That was the basic tenor, but if you think I’m exaggerating, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly once said he’d deem critics of the war to be “enemies of the state.” During the Bush years America could do no wrong, nor could its military which became an object of public worship thanks in part to a massive taxpayer-funded PR campaign, and Uncle Sam would do whatever it wanted, wherever it wanted, because FREEDOM GODDAMMIT! In fact, America was kind of acting like this other country has been acting in recent years, but that’s another dozen blog posts.

Now the same people who would call you a traitor, commie, or pussy for opposing the war have suddenly become peace-loving doves, publicly calling how Hawkish Hillary. In my interactions with them it appears as though they literally do not remember the entire Bush administration. They seem to believe that the Middle East’s problems began with the Obama administration. That’s the moment when Fox News and the rest of the conservative media machine officially authorized them to criticize US foreign policy again.

Still I can’t get my head around this memory loss. How do you go through life not knowing what happened about 15 years ago? The Iraq War was one of the biggest media circuses of the first decade of the 21st century. It dominated the news for years. It became a part of our popular culture in TV, film, and video games. These are not the little details from grade school that I can’t remember. We’re talking major historical events.

I guess the phenomenon can only be explained by Trump’s particular style of lying, which incidentally resembles the Kremlin method. This is not the normal lie where you’re accused of something you know you did, ergo you try to concoct a plausible story so your accuser or the gallery will believe you. Such a lie is not really crafted at all. Basically the way it works is that your opponent says something about you, and you need to say something in order to “win,” typically the opposite of what they’re saying. It does not matter if your audience can easily check and see that this is not true. All that matters is that you have a response that opposes their claim. Imagine someone walks up to you wearing a thong and covered in sunflower oil, and when you point this out they say, “What? Nonsense. I’m wearing a very expensive tailored suit!” That you can see they are clearly not wearing anything close to that does not matter in the slightest. The point is you said they were one thing so they said they were another and that’s that.

If you support, follow, or sympathize with such people, eventually you’ll have to shape your own memories and reality itself in order to hold onto your worldview without creating too much cognitive dissonance. Trump actually supported the Iraq War, but in his campaign he said he was against it so now memories must change and it’s “the dishonest media’s” fault for bringing up the past. Bush and his White House team enthusiastically fought for, and got their invasion of Iraq, but Trump says all the fallout from that is Obama and Hillary’s fault, so now people who most likely voted for Bush can’t remember his entire administration or what it did. It’s another form of “they don’t believe these things because they’re stupid; they become stupid because they believe these things.”

What must that feel like, I wonder. How does an individual who enthusiastically cheered for war on Iraq feel when they attack Hillary supporters (or just Trump opponents like me) for being “hawkish” and supporting the invasion? How do people who attacked Obama in 2012 for telling Dmitry Medvedev he could be “more flexible” after the election reconcile their outrage then with their current candidate’s submissiveness toward Putin? I have to know if there are times when they are conscious of these contradictions, i.e. “I used to believe this but now I believe this other thing.”

It’s normal for beliefs to change and evolve- I’m living proof. But the difference with real evolution or change is that you consciously, often publicly reject your previous views and you have some kind of explanation as to why you did so. I just don’t see this with most of the Trump supporters. The military’s still awesome and Obama was a bastard when he “apologized for America,” yet Trump can call America a loser that doesn’t win anymore and attack Hillary for being a “hawk” and supporting the Iraq War. And hell, their own candidate exudes hawkishness as well, yet he gets a free pass.

Assuming the United States survives the next decade as a developed country, I hope scientists will devote a lot of time to figuring out this riddle. The future of democracy depends on it.