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OPINION

Russia’s not so little election helpers

Without decades of organized efforts by a lavishly funded movement of self-proclaimed patriots, the disruptive efforts of Russians and other foreign elements would have failed.

An attendee takes in the scene after the Republican National Convention wrapped in Cleveland, July 21, 2016. The fifth and final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report revealed new details about Russian links to the Trump campaign in 2016 and offered broad warnings for future elections.
An attendee takes in the scene after the Republican National Convention wrapped in Cleveland, July 21, 2016. The fifth and final volume of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report revealed new details about Russian links to the Trump campaign in 2016 and offered broad warnings for future elections.CHANG W. LEE/NYT

Investigations by news organizations, US intelligence agencies, the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee, and of course by special prosecutor Robert Mueller, all reached the same conclusion: The Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential elections. Some observers have gone so far as to conclude that Russia’s machinations were essential to Trump’s victory. By taking advantage of social media’s tendency to aggregate and deepen political passions, Russia gave vital assistance to Donald Trump’s campaign.

For example, on Instagram, a group called “Born Liberal” pushed a meme showing a clenched fist holding a bundle of strings connecting to images of people with television sets for heads. Accompanying the image was this statement: “The People Believe What the Media Tells Them They Believe: George Orwell.” Orwell said no such thing, as may be obvious from the tortured grammar. “Born Liberal” was in fact the handiwork of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian Internet propaganda initiative in St. Petersburg. The point of this particular effort was to deepen American distrust of mainstream news.

Now fast forward to 2020. In February, intelligence officials warned House lawmakers that Russia was at it again, to help President Trump win reelection. The Russians are clearly hell-bent on undermining American democratic institutions. Facebook and Twitter have already removed dozens of Russian accounts spreading disinformation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the problem is far worse this year than in 2016. He blames the increase in foreign trolling for Trump on the weak US response to the ongoing threat. Yet that’s not the whole story.

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No matter how cunning the trolls or relentless the bots, Russia could not reasonably expect to achieve meaningful results in the absence of an already receptive audience. Where citizens trust authoritative institutions, disinformation campaigns are likely to flounder. Peer-reviewed scholarship, professional journalism with editorial oversight, rules of evidence in judicial procedures, and science-based administrative agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Environmental Protection Agency would, in such a circumstance, serve as trusted arbiters of the truth. Where institutions are distrusted, conspiracies flourish and disinformation thrives.

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National Election Study data in 1958 showed that about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to “do the right thing almost always or most of the time.” Other institutions, including the news media, once also enjoyed broad public support. It might be hard to imagine today, but in 1972 the most trusted man in America was a journalist: CBS anchor Walter Cronkite. By April 2019, considerably less than a third of respondents said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing. Meanwhile, trust in news media is now at historic lows. Where authoritative institutions are in crisis, “alternative facts” flourish.

While not all of the damage sustained by struggling institutions can be pinned on a single source, substantial responsibility rests with a decades-long campaign to undermine them led by an evolving network of self-described libertarian organizations supported by billions of dollars provided by hundreds of wealthy families, individuals, and corporations. This is not a monolithic political block, and there are some areas in which it has shown recent signs of splintering, but core areas of agreement and action include undermining government’s ability to provide public services, regulate the economy, address the environmental crisis, or tax extreme wealth. In her account in “Dark Money,” investigative journalist Jane Mayer of The New Yorker has documented this network of think tanks and astroturf organizations organized by Charles Koch and his now late brother David. Though shrouded in secrecy, we know that it includes hundreds of wealthy donors.

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Back when Vladimir Putin was an obscure KGB agent and Mark Zuckerberg was a child, this network began developing a large organizational apparatus with sophisticated campaign finance, lobbying, judicial appointment, and communication strategies designed to elect politicians and shape policies to promote their radical free-market ideology. Advancing an agenda that increases inequality, blocks public-interest legislation, undermines democratic participation, and dismantles the rule of law requires operations on many fronts: capturing state legislatures, circulating model legislation to restrict voting, packing the state and federal courts, dismantling the “administrative state,” and neutralizing facts marshaled by scientists and journalists.

Hundreds of different advocacy organizations and think tanks have been dedicated to these ends. For example, the debate over climate change became overheated thanks in part to the Heartland Institute, which has received money from the Koch and Mercer families and fossil fuel companies to undermine climate science and question the motives of scientists who study it. Like hundreds of other disinformation sources, the aim is to confuse the issues and provide smokescreens for aligned politicians to derail government solutions for problems that threaten short-term business interests.

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Perhaps the best description of the network’s anti-government ideology comes from the anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, who once said: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

A leaked 2017 memo prepared by a public relations firm for the Koch Network used all of the best buzzwords (reform, freedom, and prosperity) to justify bottomless greed at the expense of public well-being “Comprehensive tax reform has been a long-standing priority for our network,” the memo said, "and the election of Donald Trump, coupled with pro-freedom majorities in the House and Senate, offers us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore prosperity by enacting reforms.”

Other efforts include busting unions and killing public transportation systems, and of course making sure the United States remains the only advanced economy on the planet without national health care. Even basic survival measures aimed at easing the pandemic rub the anti-government libertarians the wrong way. The family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is another important player in this anti-public-interest movement and has supported the anti-stay-at-home protests in Lansing.

All of this political chaos is amplified and translated for popular consumption by a large right-wing media echo chamber. For decades, histrionic personalities like Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones have popularized the anti-science, anti-government message. It wasn’t the Russians who pushed the cynical “Four Corners of Deceit” meme claiming science, government, media, and academia are untrustworthy and crooked. Rush Limbaugh did that for years, just as he now tells his millions of listeners that COVID-19 is part of a plot to shut down the country and steal the election from Trump. The president had earlier awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom and praised his “decades of tireless devotion to our country.”

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The Russians could not have done it better. While it is clearly the case that the Russian government has conducted a sustained campaign of information warfare against American political and civic institutions, they have had plenty of help from within. Without decades of organized efforts by a lavishly funded movement of self-proclaimed patriots and freedom lovers, the disruptive efforts of Russians and other foreign elements would have failed. We should look to restore trusted institutions and election processes if we want to combat outside interference.

Steven Livingston is a professor at George Washington University, where he is the founding director for the Institute for Data, Democracy, and Politics. W. Lance Bennett is a professor of political science and senior research fellow at the Center for Communication & Civic Engagement at the University of Washington. They are the editors of “The Disinformation Age: Politics, Technology, and Disruptive Communication in the United States.”