Media Undermine Democracy by Speculating Wildly About Undermining Democracy

Washington Post illustrates its speculation about Russian plots with an image of Moscow gratuitously photographed through a construction fence. (Photo: Maxim Zmeyev/Reuters)

Media Undermine Democracy by Speculating Wildly About Undermining Democracy

The relentless drumbeat of Trump-as-Russian agent takes hasn't ceased since the news broke of a likely Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee in June--and it probably won't stop until Election Day.

The relentless drumbeat of Trump-as-Russian agent takes hasn't ceased since the news broke of a likely Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee in June--and it probably won't stop until Election Day. One sub-genre of this line of thinking, however--that Russia will literally hack our election process and throw the US into a dystopian constitutional crisis--has been slowly building over the past couple of months, culminating this past week with an FBI warning about a potential Russian threat:

  • "By November, Russian Hackers Could Target Voting Machines" (Washington Post, 7/27/16)
  • "Could Russian Hackers Spoil Election Day?" (NBC News, 7/28/16)
  • "Are Voting Machines the Next Target of Russian Hacking? One Security Expert Thinks So" (Recode, 7/31/16)
  • "How to Hack an Election in 7 Minutes" (Politico, 8/5/16)
  • "Could Russian Hackers Mess With the US Election Results? It Wouldn't Be Easy; Here's Why" (LA Times, 9/8/16)
  • "How Russian Hackers Could Disrupt the US Election" (CBS News, 9/12/16)

We'll set aside the lesser charge that Russia is attempting to shift the election in Trump's favor by leaking unseemly bits about the inner workings of the DNC, and instead focus on the much more more serious charge that the Russians are actually working to hack into US election systems in November and tamper with the literal votes.

The most consistent pusher of these "fears" is the Washington Post, which first broke the news (9/5/16) that the US was preparing for a Russian hack of the elections. Per usual with these stories, the provocative headline was undermined down page by a brief but consequential qualifier:

US Investigating Potential Covert Russian Plan to Disrupt November Elections

Five paragraphs down, this mostly evaporated:

The official cautioned that the intelligence community is not saying it has "definitive proof" of such tampering, or any Russian plans to do so. "But even the hint of something impacting the security of our election system would be of significant concern," the official said. "It's the key to our democracy, that people have confidence in the election system."

Despite stoking fears based on a "hint" of a problem, a report on US government suspicions could at least be said to be a story; government officials investigating something, no matter how implausible, could still said to be newsworthy. This report, however, was quickly followed by an op-ed by contributor Anne Applebaum (Washington Post, 9/8/16) that took the government's cautious preparation and ran with it into full-on Alex Jones territory.

In "How Russia Could Spark a US Electoral Disaster," Applebaum begins by hanging a lampshade on how preposterous what she's about to write really is:

The headline: "US Investigates Potential Covert Russian Plan to Disrupt November Elections." To those unused to this kind of story, I can imagine that headline, from the Post this week, seemed strange. A secret Russian plot to throw a US election through a massive hack of the electoral system? It sounds like a thriller, or a movie starring Harrison Ford.

It sounds like something out of a B-movie, because that's what it is. Unperturbed by her own admission of absurdity, she insists that it's not outlandish because, "in fact, the scenario under investigation has already taken place, in whole or in part, in other countries." But Applebaum provides no examples, no proof that Russia has done any of the things she goes on to speculate about. She just asserts they have, then moves on to her next point.

She lists seven possible scenarios of how Russia could undermine the November election. The first scenario doesn't actually involve Russia, just Trump doing what he does, which is stoking paranoia. The second scenario speculates that Russia will continue to dump damaging information via WikiLeaks from the DNC hacks which, while still relying on unproven assertions, is fair enough.

She then moves on to a third, even goofier scenario, ratcheting up the panic one more notch:

3. On or before Election Day, Russian hackers will seek to break into the US voting system. We certainly know that this is possible: Hackers have already targeted voter registration systems in Illinois and Arizona, according to the Post, and the FBI has informed Arizona officials that it suspects Russian hacking teams. Possible breaches are being investigated in several other states, and it's not hard to imagine that many are vulnerable. The US election system is decentralized and in some places frankly amateurish, as we learned in Florida in 2000.

Applebaum commits a sleight-of-hand here. She references the alleged Russian hacking of voter data in Arizona as proof Russians could hack the actual voting system. These systems are separate and most of them, according to her linked article, aren't even online. Foreign Policy (8/30/16) looked into the hacks and further clarified that what was hacked was voter information (which, in most states, one can obtain for a small fee), not the ability to manipulate vote totals. The reader, however, is led to believe that Russians are attempting to tamper with actual votes, which isn't something that's yet been alleged, much less proven.

But it's points 4-6 where the wheels really come off. And it's worth reading her own words in their totality to get a sense of just how unhinged the piece gets:

4. The Russians attempt to throw the election. They might try to get Trump elected. Alternatively -- and this would, of course, be even more devastating -- they might try to rig the election for Clinton, perhaps leaving a trail of evidence designed to connect the rigging operation to Clinton's campaign.

Whoa, slow down there. So now the sinister Russians may not be rigging in Trump's favor, but possibly helping Clinton (whom they dislike) become president, just so they can plant a false flag (that presumably the US's massive intelligence apparatus could not detect) to frame Clinton for rigging the election herself. Applebaum, in the top-selling newspaper in the nation's capital, is legitimately offering up a double-layered false flag of election-rigging.

She went on, blood pumping:

5. Once revealed, the result will be media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis -- followed by confusion, chaos and an undermining of the office of the presidency. Trump might emerge from the process as president after all. He will then go on, as promised at so many rallies, to "lock her up," and of course to open a broad relation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the only foreign leader he seems to truly admire. Even if Clinton remains as president, she will be tarnished. At least a part of the country will assume she is illegitimate, that the elites/Clinton clan/mainstream media stole the election from "the people."

If you're keeping track, we are now on our fourth layer of assumption. Thus far, Applebaum has speculated: Russia will rig the election - Russia frame Clinton for the rigging - Russia "reveals" the rigging at some unknown point - Trump "emerges" after some constitutional crisis and mass unrest. Whew.

Is this sober political analysis or a rejected script for 24? It's unclear.

Applebaum then effectively canceled out the last three paragraphs by acknowledging none it will probably happen:

6. More likely, the hack will fail, or never even get off the ground. But what's the downside in trying, or even in letting it be known that it was tried? Rumors of election fraud can create the same hysteria as real election fraud. Already, Russia's propaganda wire service,, has speculated that the Post's article on Russian electoral manipulation is a clever plot "to hide the actual efforts at electoral manipulation" and a "good cover for vote-rigging." That thought will be tweeted and posted and shared by a whole ecosystem of professional trolls and computer bots, over and over again until it finally shows up on authentic pro-Trump websites.

This is pure, unadulterated speculation--the kind of "what if, then they might" house of cards one would expect from an episode of Ancient Aliens, not in one of the most influential papers in the English-speaking world. In a moment of outright self-parody, Applebaum notes that "rumors of election fraud can create the same hysteria as real election fraud" while spending 800 words doing nothing but spreading rumors of election fraud. We have met the rumormonger, Ms. Applebaum, and she is you.

One sure way to undermine confidence in US elections is to speculate wildly about such scenarios. Evidence-based discussions of the potential for electoral fraud are useful-and it's important to note that there's always a risk of voting manipulation-but running away with wholly speculative scenarios built on even more speculative scenarios, while pontificating about "media hysteria, hearings, legal challenges, mass rallies, a constitutional crisis," does nothing to inform the reader, much less address the real dangers of election fraud. It simply serves to frighten the public by cynically appealing to our baser Cold War instincts.

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