The 2016 presidential elections were wildly divisive. Over the course of the campaign, families were split apart by toxic rhetoric and inflammatory, often false, propaganda, on social media. We’ve learned in the last three years, thanks to former special counsel Robert Mueller that such divisiveness was by design, and perpetuated by the Russian government. Mueller’s conclusion was unequivocal that there were “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.”
But that interference has been of little interest to politicians who would rather focus on President Trump. And as Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary Committee, many of the questions, or rants in the case of house members like Representative Jim Jordan, have been centered on Trump’s presumed innocence or suspected guilt in attempting to obstruct the Mueller investigation. Unfortunately, the representatives on both sides of the aisle are too blinded by scandal to ask the most important question: How did Russia use digital media and propaganda to sow division in American families and what can we do to stop it?
While we did not hear representatives in the House Judiciary Committee probing the crucial question of Russian interference, the evidence is laid out plainly in the Mueller report. Russian operatives linked to Putin himself created hundreds of fake social media accounts to reach hundreds of millions of Americans through Facebook and Twitter. Those accounts posted memes and ads and tweets designed specifically to push American’s ideological buttons and spread misinformation. The hope was to destabilize the election process by creating widespread division among Americans.
Why? Because when Americans are angry and divided they are unreasonable and uncommunicative. And families across the U.S. found themselves at odds with one another based on this influence. Fathers and mothers stopped talking to children. Sisters and brothers stopped talking to one another. Cousins stopped talking to cousins.
I know this is true because it happened in my family. For the first time in my life after the 2016 election, I had relations who I loved sending me venomous texts and messages. They were only rivaled by my own angry and frustrated social media posts. We could not see one another. We could not hear one another. And we were disconnected. But we, like many, many Americans, were also duped. We’d become victims of a slick and perfectly crafted Russian propaganda campaign aimed at conservatives and progressives alike. We took the bait. The systematic interference later uncovered by Mueller was wildly effective.
But that’s to be expected. The Russians are propaganda professionals. They have been practicing since the end of WWII. It is how they controlled the Eastern Bloc countries and maintained the Iron Curtain until the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Let us not forget that of those indicted by the special counsel, the majority of them weren’t Trump campaign officials, but Russian intelligence officers and operatives. So why are we dead set on focusing on the one person who wasn’t indicted: the President of the United States.
If the Russian campaign to foster division in America was effective in 2016 it remains effective three years later. The proof is in Mueller’s testimony before the House. While Mueller is challenged by the right, praised by the left, berated or asked to corroborate information about obstruction, Russain operatives remain unmentioned and questions about their methods go unasked.
That is chilling, particularly as we enter into a new presidential election. Because the fact is that, aside from actions taken by Facebook and Twitter to catch and delete Russian accounts, there has been no successful bipartisan political action to protect our elections from foreign influence. Yes, bills have been introduced, most recently by Senators Mark Warner, Amy Klobuchar, and Lindsey Graham to improve ad transparency, but these bills have struggled.
The Mueller report offered a warning: foreign countries are hell-bent on destabilizing our democracy. Those efforts are working to tear American families apart. They are keeping us from seeing each other as citizens who are more alike than we are different, and we will continue to be divided unless we can focus. The core of our democracy is in danger, not from a bumbling, lying, ineffective president, but from foreign adversaries who want nothing more than to keep Americans from seeing eye to eye.
That is the emergency and it is time we focus on it.