By Jessica Emami
By now, we have all heard the claim that the Russian government stole the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Democrats state that the outcome might well have been different had this hostile action not occurred. Republicans, in response, accuse Democrats of sour grapes, arguing that US voters are perfectly competent to weigh the pros and the cons of candidates and choose a candidate that best reflects their preferences. Republicans also assert that the Democrats overestimate the ability of online actors to influence US voters.
Why don’t Republicans take the Russian threat seriously? Many view the citizen or voter as an autonomous being capable of directing their own political activities. Such activities include voting, registering to vote, contacting a lawmaker, volunteering for a campaign, and donating funds to a campaign. They are skeptical that groups, let alone bands of anonymous online actors, could have such a large impact on voters and an election.
But the truth about Russian influence in our electoral system has serious implications for democracy, and for the mid-term elections of 2018. With the multiplicity of avenues open to legitimate political activists and mischievous foreign actors in today’s digital age, it’s necessary to develop an expanded conception of political participation, including election meddling.
A Wider View of Political Participation
A wider view of political participation considers anyone who affects public policy indirectly, by influencing the influencers, as a participant. This enlarged perspective includes political participation by non-citizen groups such as the “Dreamers”, online activists, public protesters, political action committees (PACs), and malicious non-state actors such as hacker groups and the Russian government. These groups would not be so numerous or spend nearly as much time and money on political influence if research had proven their activities are not significantly influential.
For most of these groups, vast amounts of resources are spent online, because that is where they can be most effective and influential due to the anonymity and permissive legal environment of the internet. And the internet is where much of their audience is.
Russian Influence and the Internet’s “Attention Economy”
Over the last 20 years, social media platform developers have vied for consumer attention and influenced consumers by producing user interfaces and digital displays that grab attention, stimulate emotional responses, and compel consumers to constantly participate in the online environment.
The efforts to build compelling social media platforms have been so successful that they now constitute an “attention economy”. How many people, after all, feel a compulsion to keep checking the new, red Facebook notifications just in case they’re important, or swipe the newsfeed to see if any important new posts appear, or feel like something is missing when they turn their smartphones off?
Add to the attention economy the Russian government, who has excelled at ideological warfare since the early 1900s, and whose goal is to increase their sphere of influence. Communism in Russia has long ended, but the political manipulations of that era, as well as many of the same actors, are alive and well. Over the last several years, the Russian government and non-governmental actors linked to it, have spent extraordinary amounts of time, labor, and money to reach U.S. voters through attention economy platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google.
The Russians disguised themselves in cyberspace as interested domestic civic groups, and deployed variations of the “divide and conquer” strategy, spreading dissent online by sensationalizing sensitive issues such as racism, immigration, abortion and gun control. They also bought advertisements in the name of non-existent US citizen groups and placed them on popular platforms. Because we cannot see those with whom we communicate in the opaque internet environment, these techniques have been wildly successful at compelling, disturbing, and influencing people.
Just because Russia succeeded only at indirect, not direct, strategies at influencing our election outcomes in 2016 does not mean they were not highly effective, or that they will not try again in 2018. Influencing public opinion remains a key component of political participation. But foreign intervention into our electoral system is a serious blow to the integrity of our democracy. These attacks will likely continue by Russia and other actors unless we expend resources to regulate social media, demanding that they operate more transparently and block organized infiltrators. In this day and age, we must realize an expanded view of political influence if we are to remain a democracy, free from malicious non-state actors’ intervention.