Howard Axelrod is a lecturer in creative writing at Loyola University Chicago and the author of The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude.
Americans don’t need help from Moscow to tear each other apart on social media.
We’re still debating whether Russian bots, fake news and inflammatory Facebook posts tipped the 2016 election—but there’s something much more fundamental at work here: America’s political culture is deeply sick and ripe for exploitation.
The reason so many Americans believed the vitriolic Russian posts is that they resembled vitriolic American posts. If the context of polarization and online hostility didn’t exist, the Russian posts would have stood out as conspicuous forgeries, even given our level of news illiteracy. You don’t impersonate someone by saying something he wouldn’t say. The voice the 13 Russian ventriloquists—the ones the special counsel indicted last month—threw was our own.
When such posts come from trolls and bots in Russia, they’re illegal, as they should be. But when they come from U.S. citizens, the damage is largely the same, even if there’s no chess master manipulating a focused attack. Granted, the Russians’ intention was the opposite of the cable news outlets, the radio hatemongers, and most U.S. citizens. If democracy is a marriage, they wanted to lure us toward bitter divorce, or perhaps a murder-suicide, whereas those of us motivated not solely by likes or Nielsen ratings want to save the marriage by winning key arguments. But we’ve become like bitter spouses at a dinner party, insulting each other publicly, forgetting that we have to go home together, and that the tone of what we’ve said will linger far longer than the content.
The way to undermine a democracy, the Russians have reminded us, is to destabilize a common sense of reality and decency so that we can’t trust facts or each other, or use reason to debate issues based on those facts, which leaves us to trust only our own clans. And that leaves us with tribalism.
The Russians didn’t initiate this tribalism in our politics. The chants of "lock her up,” calling for Hillary Clinton’s incarceration, didn’t start with the Internet Research Agency allegedly paying a woman to dress up as Clinton in a prison uniform. They didn’t even start with Trump’s campaign threats, or with the "Clinton for Prison” merchandise available for sale on his campaign website. They started in the 1990s with PACs paying for ads that labeled Clinton a criminal for her involvement in Whitewater.
But here’s how times have changed—and how we inadvertently set the battlefield for the Russians. Attacks ads have now jumped from political campaigns to news outlets to our own posts on social media. For instance, when President Trump, after winning the election, told The New York Times he didn’t plan to pursue his campaign threat to have Clinton prosecuted, Breitbart News criticized Trump’s "broken promise” (not recognizing that his flirtation with decency was only temporary). A Twitterstorm followed. Emboldened by our leaders and media outlets, and empowered by social media, we perpetuate attacks even after the political campaigns have dropped them.
If only politicians and media outlets were at fault, the Russians wouldn’t have succeeded. But angry, disillusioned, fed up—who among us, on the left or the right, hasn’t posted or retweeted a snarky meme, or an article we didn’t particularly vet for reliability? Who among us hasn’t joined in the incivility, the self-righteous grandstanding, or the polarizing name-calling of a dysfunctional relationship? The more we feel attacked, the more we go on the attack, inadvertently perpetuating a cycle of verbal retribution. A tweet for a tweet leaves the whole world, or at least the whole country, polarized.
The pattern shouldn’t be news. In a 2013 study called "The Nasty Effect,” led by Ashley A. Anderson at the University of Wisconsin, researchers studied how online incivility leads to polarization. Subjects read a neutral blog post on nanotechnology: half the subjects read the post with civil comments appended below it; half read the same post but with uncivil comments appended, such as, "If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.” The blog post was neutral, and every subject read the same one. But those who read the uncivil comments dug in their heels on their beliefs. It didn’t matter which side of the debate they were on, or how much previous knowledge they had. It didn’t matter that the blog post made no argument in either direction. "When exposed to uncivil comments, those who have higher levels of support for nanotechnology were more likely to report lower levels of risk perception and those with low levels of support were more likely to report higher levels of risk perception.” In other words, some nonexpert anonymous commenter calls you an idiot, and you automatically cling more tightly to your view.
Replace a post on emerging technologies with a post on emerging fears—e.g., guns in schools, immigration, terrorism—followed by comments and epithets far nastier than "idiot,” and it’s easy to extrapolate how nasty the nasty effect can be, and how quickly it might become exponentially nastier if readers retaliate with nasty comments of their own.
Yet polarization, one might argue, is simply a natural bedfellow of democracy. Not so. As conservative scholar James Q. Wilson noted in 2005, in response to Bush/Kerry hostilities (which now seem quaint), not since the Civil War had the electorate been so polarized. That year, 2005, a Gallup poll found that 65 percent of Americans perceived the country as greatly divided. This past November, the Gallup poll figure reached 77 percent, an all-time high.
To call us all unwitting pawns isn’t fair, of course, as there’s no grand conspiracy at work here. Just an ongoing degradation of public discourse, which poses an ongoing and deepening threat to democracy. But instead of being unwitting accomplices, perhaps we should turn the Internet Research Agency into an unwitting marriage counselor for democracy, one who has forced us to see a cautionary reflection of ourselves.
Now that would be a twist.