Reflections on the Russian Meddling

Fenster writes:

Let’s stipulate the meddling.  The amount spent was minuscule and the effort undertaken paltry. The only way it could have sown discord is if we did it to ourselves.

Maybe those evil Russkies are clever enough to know we would tie ourselves up in knots over some Facebook ads.  Maybe it was their strategy all along to count on a huge overreaction based on domestic political considerations. But what they actually did–as described in the actual documents, not as described on the evening news–is pretty thin gruel. You don’t have to defend the Russians or deny they were engaged in the common practice of meddling in the affairs of other countries to conclude that this has been overblown from the start.

But to indulge my pessimistic side for a minute, it could be that control of narrative is an essential feature of any large political entity, as important as establishment of systems of law, justice and policy. Our constitution explicitly deals with these last three systems by embodying them in the three branches of government and setting them apart from, and in tension with, one another. But our system leaves the media free, on paper.

Yet what if all effective public action is in the long run deeply tied to information, interpretation of information and, in turn, consensus and legitimacy? The press was free enough over our history but nonetheless had ties to the established order sufficient to allow us to cohere and for government action to be considered legitimate. Now comes the internet and social media. And the Establishment asks, perhaps quite reasonably from the point of view of regime management, “can we afford the unregulated spread of these destabilizing platforms?”  Beyond the overstated worry over throwing an election there are more legitimate concerns over the spread of counter-narratives that are false as well as counter-narratives (as with Wikileaks) that are true but are held to be detrimental to American interests, however those interests are defined by those in power.

So it may be all about Russia, Russia, Russia today but in the background is fear and dread over losing the historic ability to shape the narrative under our freedom of the press rules. In China and even in Europe they are coming at this question head-on by formally regulating social media and controlling speech. We are daintier about it here given our Constitution, history and traditions.

But we are at it in our own ways. In the US “private” internet companies practice shadowbanning and demonetization to suppress while the government screams “RUSSIA!!” It seems to me to be all part of the same thing. And who knows, if large political entities need to control narrative irrespective of whether they technically are supposed to have freedom of the press and freedom of speech then our technological future will be collective and not individualistic.

It is a little ironic that an Establishment that is so cavalier about the virtues of borderlessness should be so Pecksniffian about its own interests in the national project.  But as they say everyone is conservative about what they know best.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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