Is American society so fragile that a few “divisive” ads, news stories, commentaries, and even lies – perhaps emanating from Russia – threaten to plunge it into darkness? The establishment’s narrative on “Russian election meddling” would have you believe that. On its face, the alarm over this is so ridiculous that I doubt any of the fearmongers really believe their own words. They’re attempting to provoke public hysteria for political, geopolitical, and financial gain. There’s no more to it than that.
While we the people are not deemed worthy of being shown the evidence that “Russia” – which I take to mean Vladimir Putin – was behind the so-called meddling, even if we grant it just for the sake of argument, what does it amount to? Where’s the existential threat to America that justifies the fevered rhetoric and bizarre policy proposals that are the staple of cable news? There is none. All I can say is, if that’s the worst the Russians can do, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over them.
And even if we ignore the fact that the material in question amounted to drops in the vast ocean of information Americans encounter every day, the establishment’s narrative and proposals are outrageous. Let’s state the obvious: we live in an increasingly borderless world – and that’s a good thing (no matter what the demagogue and ignoramus Donald Trump says). Information – and, yes, misinformation – flow more easily and cheaply than ever, making access nearly universal. It can’t be controlled. That’s a good thing. It does not justify panic.
To grow up is to cultivate methods of separating the wheat from the chaff in what we see and hear. Early on we learn to discount – if not disbelieve – the claims we hear in television commercials because we understand the role interest plays in describing goods and services. We also learn (one hopes) to treat the claims of politicians, the traditional targets of American ridicule, the same way.
There is no substitute for this sort of skepticism; it’s is a sign of maturity. A government effort to protect us from misinformation in the name of preserving “our democratic institutions” would be a contradiction, not to mention a “cure” far worse than the alleged disease. The best protection against one-sided, erroneous, even dishonest assertions is competition, the universal solvent.
Most people understand this but in too narrow a way. In every election season we are deluged with questionable, false, and even crazy claims. This didn’t start with the internet. It’s as old as politics. In fact, most campaigns today are more civil than in the past, when candidates’ alleged extramarital affairs and illegitimate children were fair game. We have all heard of – or looked at – fringe websites that traffic in political stories even the National Enquirer might reject. But a call to shut down those sites would be rejected by most people – unless the sites were suspected of being Russian.
Why should that make a difference? If a story is true, who cares who tells it? And if it is exaggerated or false, can’t the people be trusted to exercise the same skepticism they are expected to exercise when the source is American? If not, why does anyone praise democracy? Isn’t it odd for proud small-d democrats to lack that confidence in the people?
Knowing the identity of the source doesn’t indicate if a story is true. (The New York Times said – falsely – that Iraq had WMD and that all 17 intelligence agencies verified that Russia hacked the DNC.) Virtually all the material supposedly posted by Russians was authentic. (Much of it was redundant. Which bright Russian schemer thought it worthwhile to tell the people of Ferguson, Missouri, about police and racial issues there?) Were voters better or worse off because that material was made available? Was the American political system imperiled by RT’s coverage of third-party candidates or fracking? Fans of democracy who worship the “informed voter” can’t seriously say they were worse off.
Whether or not “the Russians” did what they are accused of doing, we need to be skeptical about what we see and hear, and we need to demand evidence rather than take the government’s word on faith. That also goes for what we get from the established news outlets, which have a financial interest in marginalizing alternative media.
In other words we need to be adults and quit worrying about Putin’s alleged plans to sow chaos in America.
What we don’t need is government regulation, a blunt instrument that would produce horrendous consequences, intended and unintended. One suspects that the social-media moguls have belatedly jumped on the anti-Russian bandwagon because some members of Congress have read them the riot act: get on board or else. But if who really thinks that scapegoating Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest (!), and YouTube, and burdening them – us! – with regulations, would protect Americans from political untruths and exaggerations? A false sense of security is worse than no sense of security at all.
I see more than a little irony in the fact that those who would use the state to shield us from “Russian influence” also urge us to trust the “intelligence community” – in the absence of any evidence – when it (more precisely, a group of handpicked analysts) says Russia is working night and day to destroy America. The threat to peace and liberty is homegrown and resides largely in Washington, D.C.
Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.