Nothing in this week of big news should detract from the significance of Defense Secretary James Mattis’ resignation. But the report that digital whizzes tried to sour Republican voters on Senate candidate Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama special election should and likely will have a major effect on American politics.
While the Mattis resignation could have immediate, literally life-and-death consequences in the national security realm, there is a risk that what was apparently done on Sen. Doug Jones’ behalf, and without his knowledge or approval, will further numb Americans to concerns about meddling by Russia or other actors in our election.
Depending on how favorable a view one takes of “dirty tricks” involving paid advertising in American politics, it could also further undermine our already wavering confidence in our institutions, politics, government and social networks, which for many Americans have become as essential to their lives as their water company or electricity provider.
To briefly recap what is alleged in the Alabama case, The New York Times reported this week that some Democratic techies tested “deceptive tactics” in the Senate race that involved “link[ing] the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention.”
“We orchestrated an elaborate ‘false flag’ operation that planted the idea that the Moore campaign was amplified on social media by a Russian botnet,” wrote the secret project's creators in an internal report the Times obtained.
Call it the 21st-century version of Nixon fans in the 1972 election trying to create a paper trail evidencing monetary support by communists for George McGovern. But whatever you call it, know this: To the extent that any of President Trump’s supporters harbor any concerns about Russian meddling in 2016, this will likely result in those concerns diminishing sharply, since the scheme apparently involved a bunch of people generally affiliated with the left in American politics.
Know this also: It will also probably convince a whole bunch of Americans that our political system really is rotten to the core, and that our institutions, including favored social networks, are incapable of stopping things that a lot of people would consider unethical and—depending on who’s doing them, paying for them, and the mechanisms involved—even illegal.
And finally, understand this: When you read campaign consultants quoted by the Times talking about how this kind of “research” occurring in the aftermath of 2016 could lead to a “race to the bottom” where everyone just engages in smoke-and-mirrors illusions using paid advertising and bots to win elections and literally nothing else even matters, that’s a very real concern—and one that amoral political consultants and strongly ethics-minded voters alike should fret about.
Of course, politics is full of dirty behavior. But there’s a big difference between lodging normal attacks and conjuring up, via foreign bots, an apparent army of Russians supporting a particular candidate in a hotly contested special election. That risks muddying the waters to the point where voters don’t know what’s real and what’s not and have no idea where the information is coming from.
So we create a situation in which Trumpers can more credibly claim that Russian meddling doesn’t matter because “Democrats do it, too,” and in which average Americans get more and more fed up thinking everything is “#fakenews” and having no confidence in our system or key players in it. And in addition, we create a situation where candidates’ records, statements, behavior and so on become invalidated, and campaigns are won and lost based on who activated the better or more effective “bot army.”
If you think the current system is too much about money and not enough about these other things, just wait until you get a glimpse of this brave new world.
The researchers in this case probably would argue that because the project budget was a mere $100,000 when the total cost of said special election was $51 million, this is a great theoretical point to make— but one that is irrelevant in practice. A mere $100,000, they will say, is not enough to swing an election in those circumstances. Jones strategist Joe Trippi seems to agree with this point, and it’s probably correct. But an asterisk should be attached to it. Any campaign professional worth their salt can think of something free or extremely cheap (in the grand scheme of things) that actually impacted vote tallies in any given race.
Oftentimes, the big bucks are just spent by both sides to achieve the outcome you’d normally anticipate—and it’s the little stuff that’s the “gravy.”
Sometimes, said “little stuff” is really good and well-deployed opposition research, sometimes it’s an unforeseen moment in a public forum, sometimes it’s a particularly effective ad that didn’t need to be aired 2,000 times to have the desired effect, and very frequently, it’s the amount of free media attention devoted to a candidate (just ask Trump or his predecessor).
It’s not clear whether Alabama voters were manipulated into voting (or not voting, as the case may be) in the way they did in 2017 using some of the dirtiest tactics available, deployed in the context of research. But Doug Jones himself has called for an investigation into what happened. So at least on the plus side, Alabamians—and frankly, the rest of us—ended up with a senator who appears to have some scruples and ethics and a coldly rational view of the entire situation.
But we’re moving into creepy territory. The more research like this is done in actual, live elections, and the more the Russians, Iranians and others continue to leverage social media in deliberately deceptive and manipulative fashions, the less people might even be able to tell or bother to try. That’s when we’re likely to find ourselves in real trouble as a democracy.