The Memo: Russia finds weapon in US divisions
Growing political polarization in the United States is a vulnerability that foreign adversaries are exploiting — and experts worry the trend will accelerate.
The threat was brought into sharp relief by the indictment of 13 Russians as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into allegations of collusion between Moscow and the 2016 Trump campaign.
The Russian efforts, according to the indictment, were part of a broader effort “to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” achieved mostly by fanning the flames of divisive debates already raging in the country.
There is bipartisan concern that the constant tearing of America’s political fabric provides an opening for Russia, or any other hostile power, to exploit.
“It’s just so easy in today’s polarized environment to take advantage of the biases that people have, and their addiction to social media, and their seeking out information that confirms their preconceived views,” said former Rep. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.).
Altmire, who served three terms in Congress, recently authorized a book on political polarization, called “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do about It.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a centrist Republican, expressed a similar view of the threat.
“We can’t accept doing nothing — just shrugging our shoulders,” Whitman told The Hill.
She said there’s a need to provide states and localities with funding and training to help them identify and rebuff efforts to meddle in elections.
But she acknowledged that the broader shift toward the political extremes would be difficult to counteract, especially when the media has become so fractured.
“There is no Walter Cronkite anymore,” Whitman said, referring to the legendary CBS News anchorman whose word carried weight with Americans of all political persuasions during his prime in the 1960s and 1970s.
Foreign policy specialists have also sounded the alarm. In a New York Times op-ed last month, former President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice argued that “the most significant, long-term threat to our security may be our domestic political polarization.”
Rice added, “We need to decide whether we want to remain the world’s pre-eminent power — a strong, cohesive beacon of democracy — or if we are content to allow our national autoimmune disorder, like a flesh-eating disease, to devour our body politic.”
Skeptics of the Russia story have noted that there is nothing particularly new or unusual about attempts by Moscow, or by other adversaries, to try to affect public opinion in the United States — just as Washington has meddled in other nation’s affairs for decades.
But experts in the area argue that the difference now is that the depth of America’s divide makes such attacks more effective.
John Sipher spent 28 years in the CIA’s National Clandestine Service. He told The Hill that the Kremlin had been seeking to influence American public opinion “for 70, 80 years.”
But, he added, two factors make today’s landscape more fertile ground for such efforts.
One, he said, was the way in which “the ability to weaponize information via social media has changed.”
In addition he said, “the big problem is us. Our hyperpartisanship and our tribal behavior are dry tinder for the Russians.”
The recent indictments make clear the extent to which Russians apparently sought to inflame divisions.
Prosecutors allege that they sought to capitalize on racial and religious tensions, backed left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as well as President Trump in the 2016 campaign, falsely suggested Hillary Clinton harbored sympathies for Sharia law, and even promoted competing pro- and anti-Trump rallies following the 2016 election.
Efforts to fuel the flames of American enmity are allegedly ongoing.
According to a New York Times report, Twitter accounts suspected of being linked to Russia immediately jumped into the gun control debate after the shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school last week in which 17 people were killed.
The Times cited researchers who claimed that Russia-linked bots had sought to stoke divisions on other hot-button topics, from NFL protests against racial injustice to the recent release of a memo alleging FBI misdeeds from the staff of Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif).
The trend toward polarization has been happening for decades. It has been pushed along by everything from gerrymandered congressional districts to the increasingly ideological tilt of the news environment.
The effects have been felt even in the most personal ways.
According to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, 45 percent of people who expressed mainly conservative views said they would be “unhappy” if a family member married a Democrat. Thirty-one percent of people who expressed mainly liberal views said they would be equally displeased if a family member wed a Republican.
A full 50 percent of people who held “consistently conservative” views — and 35 percent of people who held “consistently liberal” views — said it was important for them to live in a place “where most people share my political views.”
Grant Reeher, a professor of political science at Syracuse University, warned, “a state of hyperpolarization makes it much easier for a third party, whether we’re talking about a messaging source within the U.S. or a Russian election-hacker, to trigger reactions from either side.
“People become more inclined to believe the claims that align with the side they associate with, however outrageous or corrosive those claims might be.”
In perhaps the most ominous sign of all, realistic suggestions for reversing the trend toward polarization are in short supply. The forces driving Americans apart seem too multifaceted and strong to be easily overcome.
Meanwhile, anxiety about the ramifications grows stronger.
“If your goal was to look at America and say ‘How can I weaken this country?’, this is the way to do it,” said Altmire. “It’s to take advantage of these things.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.
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