Today US intelligence and law enforcement agencies – the CIA, FBI and NSA – released a report stating in no uncertain terms that Russia conducted a campaign devoted to harming Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump win the presidency. The means of the campaign: hacking into Democratic Party servers, cooperating with Wikileaks to release harmful documents at the right times, and producing propaganda, misinformation and fake news painting Clinton in a bad light.
Up until Election Day, the expected goal of the campaign was to undermine the expected Clinton victory and faith in American democracy. Once Trump starting winning, however, the theme of ‘this is not democracy’ was quickly dropped in favour of praising the President-elect. The final conclusion of the report is that it is highly likely that the Russian government will run similar campaigns, after this one’s brilliant success. Looking at how Russia has already managed to muddy the waters over Ukraine – meanwhile destroying the Donbas region – this is a pretty terrifying prospect.
In just a few days, however, this unbelievable series of events – Russia helping elect ‘their man’ president of the United States – will no longer matter.
Trump has managed to break the news cycle – each outrage is only news until the next outrage, and none of it seems to sink in. This report will be news for a few days, until next Monday. On Monday, six of Trump’s cabinet nominees will have confirmation hearings in the Senate, and Trump will (finally) hold a press conference on his numerous business conflicts of interest. This will all be news for a few days, until Trump does something else awful. The media is being force-fed so much news, so much scandal and lies to dig into that they simply cannot deal with it all. It’s incredibly frustrating to have to watch this happen, and not know what to do about it. What’s the point of all the outrage if no one’s listening?
And that’s the thing the media has to deal with – who is listening? The populist right, the supporters of Trump, Wilders, Le Pen, Farage, and all the rest, have tuned out. They don’t trust the mainstream media to provide them with facts, and instead get their (fake) news from Facebook. How are you supposed to debate with someone who legitimately believes Hillary Clinton is a murderer? More worryingly, the ‘anti-imperialist’ left have a similar issue. Distrust of Western governments has led them to throw the baby out with the bathwater, losing all faith in Western institutions and experts as a whole. The prime example of this is Wikileaks, which has somehow gone from exposing US war crimes in Iraq to helping an authoritarian government pick sides in an election. But it’s also something I’ve noted at my (very progressive) university studies. The critical thought that’s so vital to academia can quickly turn into the belief that nothing is really true.
Where does this leave the discussions and arguments that are vital to liberal democracies? If we’re reduced to debating what is true and what isn’t, how do we get to what should be done and what shouldn’t? Just look at the President-elect’s Twitter – a continuous mix of lies, half-truths and unfounded accusations. How do you respond to that if we can’t even agree on what the truth is? In 15 days the President of the United States will be a man who embodies the death of truth. What will this do to American democracy and by extension European democracy?
These aren’t new observations, but it is something I find incredibly frustrating. As someone working with a student organisation dedicated to debate and diplomacy, who intends to work in think tanks or foreign policy, this is not exactly an encouraging picture. All of us need to think about how we talk with people we disagree with, and how to create real debate on the issues that affect us. But as for how to do so in what seems to be (hopefully temporarily) a post-truth era – I’m not yet sure where to start.