American society has never been more polarized than today. This polarization has created information bubbles – acting as almost alternate realities. And in this environment, it is easy to manipulate opinions and further discredit facts or distort the truth.
This interview was conducted as part of the Transatlantic Media Fellowship program. Each year, the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw sponsors a select number of journalists for an independent, transatlantic trip to research stories relevant to the foundation’s work on climate & energy policy, democracy & human rights and foreign & security policy. Fellowships are selected annually and are open to journalists in any medium. Adam L. Reichardt, the Chef Editor of New Eastern Europe, is one of the three fellows in 2019 edition. During his fellowship, Adam investigated the social perception of the Russian interference in American democracy and the support for multilateral cooperation within NATO.
Earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an apparent joke, claimed that Russia will interfere in the 2020 US presidential election. When asked by a journalist about the concerns some American officials have, he responded: "I'll tell you a secret. Yes, we'll definitely do it. Just don’t tell anyone."
While Putin may have considered this to be a joke, analysts and experts in the United States did not find it funny. In fact, they already know that Russia’s information warfare against the United States which is aimed at undermining its democratic process, continues and will certainly continue through the 2020 campaign. Earlier this month, a report by a committee of the US Senate focussed on the investigation into Russian interference confirmed the conclusions of the Robert Mueller Report from March. The US Senate investigation concluded again that Russian-supported activities played a role in the outcome of the 2016 election. What is more, the report states that activities on social media linked to the Kremlin have only increased since election day three years ago.
This leads to the question as to whether Americans will be better prepared in 2020 than they were in 2016?
During a recent study trip I made to the United States, I visited St. Louis and Chicago to get an answer to this question. I wanted to learn how locals in the Midwest feel about Russian disinformation – the opinion in Washington is one thing, but I sought how Americans further away from the centers of power think about these issues.
My research found that, unfortunately, they do not think very much about it at all. Despite the fact that evidence of Russian interference, as seen in the Mueller Report or the Senate Committee Report, is undeniable – American public opinion is divided. A lot of this comes from the fact that Donald Trump, who has a strong support base particularly in the Midwest and the US South, questions the investigations’ results – calling it “Fake News”.
But there is more to it than that. Richard Farkas, a professor of political science at De Paul University in Chicago, told me that there is large awareness of Russian intervention. The problem is that it has become a political and polarizing issue; not a security issue. This is dangerous, he argues, because some Americans do not see a problem with Russia, or any other power, influencing internal politics. This is confirmed recently by the fact that Americans are divided over the recent scandal which involves Trump’s attempts to drag Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy into investigating Hunter Biden (son of Joe Biden – a leading Democratic presidential candidate). Only a little more than half of Americans support impeaching Trump for this act.
According to Farkas, American society has never been this polarized before. He says that this polarization has created information bubbles – acting as almost alternate realities. And in this environment, it is easy to manipulate opinions and further discredit facts or distort the truth.
Indeed, according to the new Senate report, the key to why Russian disinformation was so effective relates to this high level of polarization, especially around social issues and racial inequality. The report concludes that “no single group of Americans was targeted more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country.”
Similarly, a report released last year by New Knowledge – a private company that researches cybersecurity issues – which also proved Russian election interference, states that the Kremlin “showed a sustained and purposeful focus on black Americans … instigating mistrust in law enforcement and political institutions, while cultivating seemingly authentic narratives of black pride.”
Unfortunately, there is no Polish edition of Kathleen Hall Jameison’s book Cyber-War How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President. Jameison – a leading scholar on media and society – outlines in detail the interference in 2016. She argues, rightly, that via its disinformation actions, the Russian government aims to undermine faith in democracy by creating chaos and doubt – for the Kremlin, this is more important than the election of a single candidate.
Thus, have any lessons been learned since 2016? Ivo Daalder, director of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told me that the lessons are there, but American decision makers aren’t doing enough to avoid a repeat in 2020. “We should hope that a country, however divided politically on who should win what election, could unite on this issue,” he told me. “An election should be decided by American voters and not by foreign powers. But Congress has not passed the legislation needed to bolster the security of our election system.” In his opinion, the 2020 election will be relatively easy for Russian interference to take place again. What about the voters? Americans are too unprepared, he concluded.
Please note that the views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.