There’s a breed of coastal urban elite—the sort that attends a panel, for example, stacked with expert journalists on Russian perfidy, national security vulnerabilities, and the diffuseness of digital information—which have earned notoriety for blowing the 2016 election. These people, the argument goes, are walled off by gridded city streets, disconnected with the rest of America, the real America. We (and I have to say we, since I was raised in the Acela corridor between DC and Boston and now call Brooklyn my home) got complacent, trusted that a cosmopolitan existence was the only one worth living, believed that the global economy had recovered just fine from the 2008 financial crash, and in so doing, pissed a lot of people off in the country’s middle. The election of Donald Trump, the crass charlatan who flailed about New York City for decades as court jester, was the revenge of these forgotten Americans. They delivered us Trump out of ressentiment—“fuck you and your New York values.”
But one of those values, we denizens of the urban elite class might counter, is the pride we take in knowledge. It was knowledge that allowed us to see Trump’s snake oil for what it was, and lack of knowledge that bamboozled the poor people who fell for it. Ours isn’t just any knowledge, but Truth, a category that rockets beyond “how to repair a carburetor without paying a mechanic” into the orbit of moral goodness. The truth cleanses us of responsibility. We didn’t vote for that monster. It wasn’t the college graduates, the PhDs, the subscribers of The New York Times who fell for crackpot conspiracies peddled by Breitbart and a host of sketchy websites with ignominious names and white nationalist proclivities. The rapid Facebook shares of flagrantly false stories about Hillary Clinton’s health and the RTs of veiled racist attacks by formless avatars were delivered – strictly and solely, we insist—by the hordes inhabiting America’s heartland. But for fake news, we’d have the first woman president.
“You Are Fake News” was the title to a panel discussion hosted by Buzzfeed News and The Intercept. These are two outlets known for magnificent investigative journalism as they vie to dethrone print stalwarts as the go-to source of information. Jeremy Scahill, author of the drone war expose Dirty Wars, moderated the panel in the stead of his Intercept co-founder Glenn Greenwald. Joining him were Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed News; Adrian Chen, a New Yorker staff writer; Sam Biddle, a contributor to the Intercept; and Masha Gessen, a high-profile journalist and Putin critic. These are leading voices on the cutting edge of news. It is their job to disseminate knowledge—that elite urban virtue—to the public.
What’s astonishing was not how little time the panel devoted to condemning far-right fake news—Breitbart, a member of the audience observed during the Q&A, was never mentioned—but the consensus they formed that exaggerated accounts, hysterical tweets, and fringe figures have overtaken the conversation regarding Russia’s involvement in our election.
Maybe fake news isn’t just for the Trump voter.
Hillary stans have been howling “Russia hacked the election” like triggered liberals since November, and you don’t need to be a particularly discerning critical thinker to be skeptical of such a claim. Often, the impulse of losing campaigns is to shed responsibility. Blame wayward FBI directors or sinister foreign agents, and you don’t have to reckon with the shortcomings of the candidate. But even the purest Green Party voter has to admit by now that there’s something to the Russia story.
But who do we mean by “Russia?” Putin himself, ordering an attack carried out by Russian intelligence? Rogue hackers acting with or without directive from the Kremlin? What do we mean by “hacked?” Few people are claiming that anyone broke into voting machines and ran up ballot totals for the Vulgar Clementine (though systemic disenfranchisement perpetrated by the GOP accomplishes the same thing.) Mostly, we’re debating how private information—emails from the DNC and Hillary campaign—found its way onto WikiLeaks. Is that hacking? Certainly. Is that hacking the election? Depends, as Clinton’s husband once said, on your definition of “the.”
From the start, Biddle pointed out the lack of evidence that anyone has offered to indict state-sponsored interference in our election. In his analysis, what we know is actually based on very educated guesses from the intelligence community that are based on previous very educated guesses. It’s “very educated guesses all the way down,” he said, perhaps inadvertently echoing the famous problem of metaphysics – how we know what we know.
Chen, who broke the story of troll-farms backed by shady foreign governments for The New York Times Magazine back in 2015, was also ambivalent about Russia’s involvement. Though he said he doesn’t believe the Russian state made a concerted effort to sway public opinion for Trump, he was agnostic on whether the Kremlin attempted to build a social media army of bots to amplify anti-Hillary fake news. He noted that this tactic was innovated by public relations firms to boost product favorability, and that its efficacy in nefarious geopolitics was likely overestimated. A cable news environment seemingly on call to cover Trump’s every bit of bluster, after all, does more damage to public opinion than a Twitter bot with three followers.
Gessen was more certain of Russia’s culpability in attempting to influence Americans in the election. Her hangup, however, was how much we can blame a foreign actor for taking an interest in the outcome of the Leader of the Free World. It’s not just American voters who have something at stake whenever we vote for president; the entire world is affected. She highlighted diplomatic security and the catastrophic consequences of climate change as reasons that explain, if not excuse, having a stake in our election. It was just the reverse—diplomatic chaos and unfettered access to fossil fuels—in the case of Putin’s petrostate. More troubling to Gessen is the means of procuring sensitive information. The hacking of the DNC was the crime.
Smith seized on this question of acceptability—is foreign influence in elections par for the course in a globalized world, or does it constitute an egregious violation of autonomy? In other words, is this a conversation about hacking, or hegemony?
Joking that the United States has a “PhD in overthrowing governments,” Scahill reckoned that we have little grounds to make the case that we’re a finger-pointing victim. Our government seeded Iraqi media with propaganda in the early days of the invasion, attempting to sweep Saddam Hussein’s support from underneath him. Smith countered that the US’s own culpability doesn’t diminish the scandal. What seemed most perplexing to Buzzfeed News EIC wasn’t that Russia wanted to take America down a peg using our own playbook, but that President Obama seemed to have simply let it. Smith related the story of how Obama met with Putin to tell him to “cut it out,” a rather toothless warning that failed to escalate the consequences for Russia.
In this reading, the surprise isn’t the interference of a foreign power, but the ease with which it succeeded. Biddle brought up the NSA report, recently leaked to The Intercept, which revealed that a company adjacent to the development of voting software was victim to a phishing scam. Emphasizing the run-of-the-mill nature of the ploy, Biddle related how he struggled to justify calling it a hack. The private sector has become increasingly integral to voting in the US, but its employees don’t have the basic security training to identify a sketchy email. It’s a fluke, then, that Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta entered his password into a fake email, releasing a trove of private documents to the world. Here, the story isn’t intrigue that goes all the way to the turrets of the Kremlin. It’s a technophobic grandfather and an elementary hack that would hardly register as background noise resulting in the destruction of America’s global standing.
We know Michael Flynn resigned for lying to the Vice President about communications with the Russian ambassador. We know James Comey, whose testimony to Congress was taking place simultaneously with the panel, was fired for the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s ties to the Russians. We know that Trump publicly and gleefully called for his opponent’s files to be hacked and leaked. Surely—surely—that’s enough to say that there’s something to this Russia stuff.
I’m not in a position to say if Russia’s involvement in Donald Trump becoming president is a distraction, or a grand conspiracy, or the 21st century’s greatest crime, or the elite liberal urbanite’s version of fake news.
But when I spoke to a gentleman in the audience after the panel had ended, he was troubled: “I’ve already drawn the conclusion that the US was attacked.” I pointed out that Gessen had explicitly contradicted this a few minutes before, responding to question by saying that it isn’t becoming clear at all that we experienced a sophisticated attack by the Russians. He accepted this, admitting that he was okay with the panel not being with him yet. He lamented nevertheless that the issue wasn’t discussed with enough seriousness. “There’s a lot of evidence that Russia is the culprit,” he said. He wanted to know how we could protect ourselves.
I didn’t have an answer.
Photos by Zane Roessell