Russia, social media and Cold War 2.0

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Donald Trump was the perfect instrument for Vladimir Putin’s 2016 attack on his long-time nemesis Hillary Clinton and American democracy.
Wikimedia Commons/Kremlin.ru

About Russia using social media to meddle in the election — and undermine and disrupt American democracy and the American social fabric generally — maybe we shouldn’t get too holy about it.

Ever hear of The Voice of America? Or Radio Free Europe? Or the United States Information Agency? And they were just the most high profile parts of American efforts to go after the Soviet Union ideologically and politically. There were scads of others, both overt and clandestine.

Were we “meddling” in Soviet affairs, trying to destabilize the regime and tear up the Soviet social fabric? Damn straight we were — even as they were trying to do the same to us, and not just with radio broadcasts, propaganda and cutout organizations. There was a war going on — the Cold War, which included a lot of little hot wars, revolutions, coups and crises — and the media war made a difference in its outcome.

The Soviets used to howl their heads off about our meddling in their internal affairs, even while mounting a massive info-war of their own.

In the end, we won the Cold War’s hearts-and-minds battle because we had a better appreciation of the cultural dimensions of the Cold War. So while Radio Moscow broadcast polemics, the Voice of America broadcast jazz and rock and roll. (The late Willis Conover, who for more than 40 years hosted the VOA’s scrupulously non-political Jazz Hour, had an estimated 30 million listeners behind the Iron Curtain.)

The U.S. government pretty much lost interest in its anti-Soviet information campaigns after the Soviet Union fell apart, out of a mistaken belief that the Cold War was over.

Well it wasn’t, as is now becoming clear. Info-wars just moved to the internet.

The Russians are waging Cold War 2.0 today, only they’ve taken the information/propaganda part of it to a whole new level by shifting the battlefield to social media. And this time they aren’t ignoring the cultural and sociological dimensions of the struggle.

Putin would probably tell you that turn-about is fair play. And he would have a point there.

But the more important point is that he caught us napping. We chose to ignore the emergence of Cold War 2.0. We failed even to recognize the information/disinformation/propaganda dimensions of it, let alone do anything about it.

Thanks to our inattentiveness, the Russians have a substantial head-start on the social media front.

Their use of social media demonstrates much deeper insight into the American psyche and a much more sophisticated understanding of American politics, culture and the American political and cultural fault lines than the Soviets ever had — and than a lot of Americans have today, for that matter.

It’s obvious that it’s having some effect. The U.S. is more polarized than it has been in decades. It’s picking at its racial scabs. Every fault line is being driven wider and deeper.

Whatever you think of the Russian meddle, you have to credit the breathtaking scope and sheer virtuosity of it. It was, and is, a Tchaikovsky symphony of meddling.

So, to borrow a phrase from Lenin: What’s to be done?

That’s easy. To borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin: Don’t retreat, re-load.

Two can play at this game.

There is nothing in the laws of man, God, or nature that says the United States cannot play by Russian rules, set up its own troll farms, identify and exploit Russian fault lines, deploy data analytics, hack Russian databases, identify and target aggrieved groups, and so on. If Putin wants to restart the Cold War, tell him “game on” and get on with it.

But that isn’t enough.

Americans, even well-educated ones, are appallingly ignorant of American political history, of the fundamental structure and organization of federal, state and local governments, of how the country’s political institutions work both in theory and in practice, and so on. That’s a big part of the reason why Russia’s social media war has been so effective.

What the country really needs is a massive remedial course in civics. Think of it as boot camp for Cold War 2.0.

Americans also need to re-learn some old civic and political virtues — like civil discourse, the importance of the loyal opposition and the art of political negotiation.

They also need to learn to recognize the techniques of political manipulation and how to immunize themselves against them — like how cynicism is used as a corrupt substitute for understanding. Or how a passionate few can sway the inattentive and the undecided many. Or how fear of the unknown and “the other” is used to sway opinion.

One reason the American republic has been as successful as it has been is that early on we figured out that widespread illiteracy was fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

Today the problem is political, cultural and computer illiteracy.

So will the Cold War ever end? Don’t hold your breath.

When it comes to the game of nations, to borrow a phrase from Robert Earl Kean: The road goes on forever and the party never ends.

The more interesting question is how it will play out in the age of the internet. What sets Cold War 2.0 apart isn’t just social media and data analytics. In the age of the internet, everyone can play, not just governments.

Maybe this round will end with individual Americans and Russians slugging it out on social media without too much government prompting. Which would give a new dimension of meaning to the phrase “people’s war”.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.