SALT LAKE CITY — If you’re a candidate for public office and you notice a social media campaign, coming from who knows where, that spreads falsehoods about your opponent, what do you do?
Do you take the John McCain high road? Remember how McCain, during the 2008 presidential election, confronted a supporter who said she couldn’t trust Barack Obama because “he’s an Arab”?
“No ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man and citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues. …”
Or do you stay quiet and figure it’s not your problem because you didn’t originate it, while secretly hoping it sticks?
I’d like to say the answer has existential implications for democracy. The truth, however, is that campaigns have been secretly spreading rumors about each other for many years. The difference now is that the rumors might be coming from a foreign government or some operative with hidden motives.
We know, through the testimony of intelligence agencies and the Mueller Report, that Russian interests tried to influence the 2016 election and actually compromised the systems of two Florida counties, although apparently no votes were changed. Robert Mueller also said to expect the same, and probably worse, in 2020.
“They’re doing it as we sit here,” he told members of Congress.
In that sense, the answer might indeed have greater meaning. Is your election more important than the nation’s election security?
Two things have brought this to mind recently.
One is an essay by Elaine Kamarck, published by the Brookings Institution, that notes political campaigns, especially large ones, are the first lines of defense against campaign mischief.
“No matter how many governments and law enforcement agencies are scrutinizing elections for illegal interference, candidates, campaign staffs, and party officials are likely to be the first to notice disinformation campaigns, voter suppression efforts, and interference with the vote count because participants in the campaigns consistently monitor all three,” she wrote.
In the 2016 presidential election, people noticed things, and not just in the general election campaign. They noticed things in the primary race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Kamarck quotes a Sanders campaign web administrator who chided followers for “taking anything that agrees with your opinion at face value, actively refusing to believe anything but what agrees with your narrative and following that up with blatant disregard for doing two minutes of searching to verify the information. …”
The other is a piece of good news, relatively speaking. A recent study from Ohio State University found that social media, for all its foibles and false information, really doesn’t influence the beliefs of Americans that much.
The study first looked at the false rumors of the 2012 campaign — “Obama is a Muslim,” “Mitt Romney said that Mormon Church leaders should play a defining role in national affairs” — and whether people had heard and believed them. Then it looked at issues and falsehoods floating around in the 2016 election.
Surprisingly, Facebook users tended to hold more accurate opinions, by a half point, than those who only used other social media platforms. Overall, however, it found we may be gullible if we believe people are too gullible.
“There are a variety of ways that people maintain their attitudes and beliefs in an information environment that could challenge them,” the study said. “Individuals are selective about what they consume and cautious about what they believe at least some of the time.”
But then it adds this caveat: “The fact that these effects are small does not mean that they are unimportant.”
Spreading lies, or allowing them to be spread about someone else, is never unimportant. It’s the kind of things our mothers warned us against, for a variety of reasons. But if they don’t work, the optimist in me says campaigns may eventually find they have more to gain by appearing to be gracious.
Kamarck noted that the Democratic National Committee had passed a resolution to inform the public when it becomes aware of any attacks on the electoral process, but that the Republican Party had failed to join in a mutual pledge because of a dispute over the possible use of hacked material that already had been reported in the media.
Of course, even resolutions, although they sound good, are not binding. Kamarck urged the parties to do more to create a climate where it’s not acceptable to take advantage of disinformation. The test will be what happens in the heat of battle, and those battles don’t seem to be getting more civil.
In many ways, McCain’s chivalry seems like a million years ago. It didn’t help him win, but if campaigns become convinced that false rumors about their opponents don’t do any good, the Russians may find themselves suddenly disarmed.