Stephen Marche writes: As executives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter head to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress, one thing is already clear: American carnage came at a bargain price. Russian trolls spent tens of thousands of dollars on Google ad products and somewhere over a hundred thousand dollars on Facebook ads, and the Russian social-media blitzkrieg of 2016 shook Western democracy to its foundation. That’s the story, anyway, and it’s already a legend of informational warfare: American innovation cleverly turned against its makers. But the frenetic need to explain Donald Trump’s election and the entirely justifiable fear of social media and of Russian interference has obscured a bigger question: Why does this stuff only work so well in America?
Since Trump’s rise to power, the the Russians have attempted to influence other elections—in Germany and in France—with nowhere near the same success. In Germany, the Times reported, “the major political parties entered into a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ this year not to exploit any information that might be leaked as a result of a cyberattack.” In France, the G.R.U., the Russian military-intelligence directorate, allegedly dumped masses of hacked data from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign just before the Presidential election. Voters there responded with the standard French shrug, then elected him in a two-to-one landslide. In Canada earlier this year, Russian disinformation targeted Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland (a friend of mine, for the record). Freeland was already a target of Vladimir Putin, banned from travelling to Russia for her support of Ukrainian causes. In January, pro-Putin social-media accounts began circulating stories about Freeland’s grandfather, who had edited an anti-Semitic newspaper in Poland during the Second World War. Here’s what happened next: Freeland’s political opponents, most notably Tony Clement, the public-safety critic in the Conservative Party’s shadow Cabinet, immediately declared that it was the responsibility of all journalists and politicians to call out the “smear.” The national broadcaster, the CBC, ignored the affair. Jewish organizations didn’t bother to respond. The whole thing disappeared. By April, Freeland was giving a plenary address to the World Jewish Congress, in New York.
The parameters of social-media conflict are difficult to grasp because Facebook posts seem irrelevant when compared to war or geopolitics—one is an online amusement, diversion, and sometime news source, while the other is life and death. But Marshall McLuhan predicted that the Third World War would be “a guerrilla information war with no division between military and civilian participation,” and that’s exactly what it has turned out to be. America seems more vulnerable than other developed countries to the kind of distortion that Facebook and Twitter bring to news and politics. Arguably, the social-media distortion affects America more profoundly than other countries because of the very specific, even unique, way that Americans make meaning. This gullibility is a consequence of the country’s ancient faith in self-determination as an all-encompassing guiding principle.
Self-determination is the source of America’s oldest political commitments and its deepest clichés—“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” the cowboy, the astronaut, Thoreau at Walden, Emerson on “Self-Reliance.” In America, everyone is entitled to his or her own vision of the universe. Therefore Mormonism. Therefore Scientology. Therefore the various phases of Bob Dylan’s career. Self-determination is a moral state and not simply an economic one. How else would so many new religions, new art forms, be born out of a single country? The idea that meaning will blossom from individuals rather than be imposed from an outside order is why America, though imperial, has never considered itself an empire. This self-determining instinct attaches to both the left and the right. “The ultimate victory will depend upon the hearts and the minds of the people who actually live out there,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said of Vietnam. “ ‘You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist Papers. Good luck,’ ” John Bolton said of Iraq. The idea that meaning is something that comes from within a person is so entrenched in American thinking that even Americans who spend decades abroad cannot quite imagine that people work any other way.
How did the Russian social-media campaign turn this American idealism, its faith in people’s ability to make up their own minds, against them? The tactical specifics of how Putin influenced the 2016 Presidential election have yet to emerge, but one thing that is obvious is that, on the broad question of media and social-media manipulation, Trump learned from Putin. “My image and name are a widely marketed brand used by anyone who feels like it,” Putin said in 2004. Already by then he had achieved complete exposure, with his face on T-shirts, pins, coins, and cakes, nostalgically recreating the iconography of a Soviet strongman in a consumerist framework. The Russian scholars Julie A. Cassiday and Emily D. Johnson, in their essay “A Personality Cult for the Postmodern Age,” make the key observation that parodic images, not just images of strength, empowered Putin—postcards of the man struggling at a pottery wheel or wearing a Byronic scarf served his empowerment as much as the images of him fishing shirtless or at the dojo. “In the context of the Putin craze, all meaning is relative,” they write. “The contemporary cult accords a surprisingly active and even playful role to ordinary citizens: each individual determines for himself what the presidential brand denotes.” Trump, too, has stumbled upon a realization that his enemies have yet to make: it is important for him to be a joke as well as a monster.
Celebrity authoritarianism works through the free-floating nature of the political icon—the meaning of Trump or Putin is determined person by person. Mockery helps both. “Everybody is joking about Donald Trump now, but it’s a very short way from joke to sad reality,” Masha Alyokhina, from Pussy Riot, warned, in 2015. “If you want in your country to have your own Putin, you can vote for Donald Trump.” [Continue reading…]