Is the paranoia sweeping the United States’ political and media establishment over Russia’s alleged interference in America’s democratic process ridiculously overblown? The topic has dominated news networks since the presidential inauguration and is currently being investigated by three Congressional committees all stepping on one another’s toes. Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is ruthlessly turning over every pebble trying to unearth collusion between Moscow and members of the Trump campaign team to oil Donald Trump’s journey to the White House.
President Donald Trump calls the allegations “a hoax”. Russia has consistently denied using propaganda to sway election results. The country’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says he has not been shown a single “fact”. Thus far, the evidence has been circumstantial reliant on meetings between Trump’s associates and Russian nationals as well as the Trump organisation’s business links with Russia, which in themselves are not criminal in nature.
Certainly, US intelligence agencies concur that Russians hacked into the email server of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, who was less than flattering about his boss. It is also the case that fake Facebook and Twitter accounts were set up by Russians attempting to swing public opinion in Trump’s favour.
However, should social media providers be duty bound to censure political posts or is it the responsibility of readers to abide by the adage ‘buyer beware’? Since when were Facebook and Twitter appointed the gatekeepers of US democracy?
There is hardly a nation on earth that does not resort to propaganda of one kind or another to preserve its own interests by influencing minds.
During both the 20th Century World Wars Britain used its Ministry of Information to generate support for allied armies through radio, newsreels and films. In the Second World War, Nazi lies were disseminated through the persuasive tongue of William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’). Japan used English-speaking females, including Tokyo Rose, to gets its message across.
Scott McClellan, one of president George W. Bush’s former advisers who also served as a White House spokesman, admitted that that the Bush White House launched a dishonest propaganda campaign to sell the Iraq War and confessed that he had unwittingly lied to journalists. Fox News and the New York Times relentlessly promoted the invasion of Iraq on the false grounds that [ousted Iraqi president] Saddam Hussain had links to Al Qaida and an arsenal of weapons and mass destruction.
What is the Voice of America that has served to bend the minds of Soviet, Chinese, Iranian, Latin American and African citizens — and currently airs in Cantonese, Mandarin and Spanish — other than a US government-run propaganda outfit? The Al Hurra network designed to influence Middle East viewers is another example. It was launched by president George W. Bush in 2004 who said, “We must do something to counter the propaganda that fills the airways of the Arab world”. Without question both the White House and the Kremlin have vested interests in seeing the latest brouhaha die a natural death. Russia wants improved relations with the US and the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump views the Russia probe as an attack on the legitimacy of his presidency led variously by Clinton supporters and enemies within his own party.
Nevertheless, these multiple investigations into a done deal, amplified by the media’s attempts to dig up as much dirt on the president and his associates, are more harmful to the democratic process and the American government’s credibility abroad than any propaganda emanating from Russia could be.
How can the White House be effective during these dangerous times when enveloped in clouds of suspicion? Why should voters trust future ballots if all foreign states have to do is flood social media with fake news? Other than tearing down the internet, propagandist floodgates can never be sealed.
If I were an American, Trump would definitely not have been my choice as Leader of the Free World but he was the people’s choice. There is no method to assess whether or not voters were persuaded to change their ballot due to Russian interference. Like it or not, his populist style and campaign promises to limit immigration, build a wall around the Mexican border, reduce taxes and create jobs resonated with a large sector of the population. In spite of the negativity, Trump’s approval rating has risen to 40 per cent. Ultimately, cyberspace is a free for all that bows not to the principle of American exceptionalism that has permitted the US to unseat foreign leaders whether through the agency of the CIA or through military interventions.
Finally, let us suppose that Russian President Vladimir Putin did choreograph an army of propagandists to keep Hillary out of the race. The shock and horror is wholly hypocritical given that according to a data base compiled by Carnegie Mellon University successive American administrations made 81 attempts to influence foreign elections between 1946 and 2000, including Russia’s.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.