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Faisal J. Abbas
Editor in Chief
Friday, November 10, 2017
Kent Harrington
Zaid M. Belbagi | Special to Arab News
How American voters
fell for Russia’s
fake news
Irresponsible social media moguls
bear a large part of the blame,
but the US also suffers from a
poorly educated electorate and a
news industry that has become
concentrated in ever-fewer hands.
S the United States marks the
first anniversary of President
Donald Trump’s election, the
question of how Trump won still
commands attention, with
Russia’s role moving increasingly to center
stage. Each new revelation in the investi-
gation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016
campaign brings the vulnerability of the
US democratic process into sharper focus.
Last week, Congress unveiled legislation
that would force Facebook, Google, and
other social media giants to disclose who
buys online advertising, thereby closing a
loophole that Russia exploited. But techni-
cal fixes and public promises to be better
corporate citizens will solve only the most
publicized problem.
The tougher challenge will be strength-
ening institutions that are vital to the
functioning of democracy — specifically,
civics education and local journalism.
Without that, the threat to America’s
democratic process will grow, resurfacing
every time the country votes.
Vladimir Putin’s intelligence operatives
chose wisely in mounting their social
media attack. Facebook hosts nearly 80
percent of mobile social media traffic,
and Google accounts for close to 90 per-
cent of online-search-related advertising.
By inundating these two platforms with
automated messages from tens of thou-
sands of bogus user accounts, Russia
stoked discord along economic, racial
and political lines.
Moreover, they did it cheaply. According
to one analysis, with only modest ad pur-
chases on Facebook, Russian agents
gained access to a goldmine of online
advertising data that enabled the “shar-
ing” of Russia’s fake news hundreds of
millions of times. At one point, an esti-
mated 400,000 bots — software applica-
tions that run automated scripts — sent
millions of fictitious political messages,
which in turn generated about 20 percent
of all Twitter traffic during the final
month of the campaign.
It is bad enough that the technology
world’s marquee names were not pre-
pared to parry foreign meddling in
America’s most important election. But
the social media giants’ persistent denial
of responsibility for delivering distorted
and false information as news is more
Strip away the technobabble about bet-
ter algorithms, more transparency and
commitment to truth, and Silicon Valley’s
“fixes” dodge a simple fact; its technolo-
gies are not designed to sort truth from
falsehood, check accuracy, or correct mis-
takes. Just the opposite — they are built
to maximize clicks, shares, and “likes.”
Despite pushing to displace traditional
news outlets as the world’s information
platforms, social media’s moguls appear
content to ignore journalism’s fundamen-
tal values, processes, and goals. It is this
irresponsibility that co-sponsors of the
recent advertising transparency bill are
seeking to address.
Nevertheless, Russia’s success in target-
ing American voters with bogus news could
not have succeeded were it not for the sec-
ond problem— a poorly educated elector-
ate susceptible to manipulation. The ero-
sion of civics education in schools, the
shuttering of local newspapers — and the
consequent decline in the public’s under-
standing of issues and the political process
— combine to create fertile ground for the
sowing of disinformation.
In 2005, 50 percent of Americans could
not correctly identify the country’s three
branches of government. By 2015, that had
grown to two thirds, and a staggering 32
percent could not name a single branch.
This slippage is apparently age-dependent;
a 2016 study of Americans with university
degrees found that those over 65 know far
more about how their government works
than those under 34.
There is a clear correlation between
democratic illiteracy and a de-emphasis
on civics, government and history educa-
tion in schools. In 2006, for example, a
study found that only a quarter of
America’s 12th graders were proficient in
civics. A decade later, that had sunk below
25 percent.
Not surprisingly, overall educational
quality and access to basic civics course-
work have also suffered. In 2011, a think
tank that ranks the 50 states on the rigor
of their high schools’ US history courses
gave 28 states failing grades. A 2016
survey of 1,000 liberal arts colleges
found that only 18 percent required a US
history or government course to earn a
High school or university courses by
themselves will not keep gullible voters
from falling for bogus news or inflamma-
tory disinformation. But the viral spread of
fake news stories initiated by Russian
agents made one thing clear — an elec-
torate lacking a basic civics education is
more likely to fall for provocations
designed to inflame partisan tensions.
Changes in the news industry are
increasing that risk. As internet giants
siphon away advertising revenue from
traditional media outlets, social media
have become many people’s main source
of news. Traditional news organizations,
especially local newspapers, are steadily
disappearing, shrinking voters’ access to
information that is vital to making
informed political decisions.
Since 2004, 10 percent of all small-
market US newspapers have closed or
merged. Of those that survive, over a third
have changed ownership, concentrating
the industry into fewer hands. The result
has been layoffs, cost-cutting, and dimin-
ished reporting on national and local
Russia’s intervention in the 2016 US
presidential election was historic, but it
was also symptomatic of bigger challenges
facing Americans. A population that does
not fully understand its own democracy
should concern not only civics teachers,
but national security experts as well. The
US didn’t need Putin to deliver that lesson.
“If a nation expects to be ignorant and
free,” Thomas Jefferson warned, “it expects
what never was and never will be.”
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA
analyst and Director of Public Affairs,
was National Intelligence Officer for
East Asia and Chief of Station in Asia.
© Project Syndicate.
The sleeping dragon
Having recognized a potential opportunity for global leadership, China
aims to realign the world order through schemes such as the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization and the One Belt One Road Initiative.
i Jinping is China’s first president to have been born after the Second
World War. Having witnessed the impressive expansion and subsequent
boom of his country first hand, he is beginning to overtly express a will
for China to be more confident and influential. A return to higher oil
prices would certainly slow down Chinese growth, however, nothing can
stop it.
At the recent 19th National Congress of the Communist Party, the Great Hall
of the People stood up in applause as Xi’s leadership was extended for another
five years. The decision was a vote of confidence in the president’s vision for a
more assertive role for China in international affairs. The sentiment reflected
support for policies laid out in Xi’s three-and-a-half hour address during
which he said China “would be moving closer to the center of the world stage,”
pursuing its own ambitious policies backed by a “world-class military.”
These developments are of such great interest as the former student of
‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ at Tsinghua University has
remained true to his training. In a marked difference from China’s new elite,
the president shows greater ideological confidence in expounding the neces-
sity of following communist principles. In recent decades those in power have
argued that blending Chinese socialism with free market principles was the
pathway to modernity, however this president is committed to pursuing a
“Chinese Dream” towards greatness which closely resembles earlier commu-
nist ideas.
Communist Party control over government is growing and the upcoming
administration is understood to have designs on better coordinating the gar-
gantuan Chinese administrative apparatus. In a departure from liberal eco-
nomics, it is understood that state-owned firms will be empowered in line with
efforts to centralize power. Such moves herald a break from mainstream views
that have been held in China since the tenure of Deng Xiao Peng who had
aimed to reform China’s economy and open it up to the world. Similarly, the
separation of party and state that had taken place after the authoritarian rule
of Chairman Mao Tse Tung has been overturned as Xi consolidates control over
the party. In a remarkable show of support, “Xi Jinping Thought” will now be
taught across national curricula and party members alongside state workers
and schoolchildren will study the philosophy of the strongman increasingly
known as “Papa Xi.”
However, a return to central communist party rule does not indicate a
return to isolationist foreign policy principles. The leader has embarked on a
charm offensive, visiting over 60 capitals in the last two years and speaking the
language of ‘inclusive’ globalism. This has come amidst talk of the West hav-
ing enveloped itself in a return to protectionism following the shocks of Brexit
and the election of Donald Trump. To policymakers in Beijing, such chao
elsewhere in the world has allowed the Communist Party to more confidently
criticize the decadent west, highlighting the paralysis brought about by the
challenges facing liberal democracies. In many respects the insular nature o
the Trump administration has risked leaving the seat of global leadership
empty — a chair upon which Xi would like to sit.
Though China continues to advocate the need for international peace an
security through working within the established procedures of the internationa
community, it is clear that it recognizes a malaise in the system. It in increas-
ingly clear that it aims to realign the global order through schemes such as the
Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the One Belt One Road Initiative whic
focuses on the connectivity between Eurasian countries through six land corri-
dors and a maritime silk road. Within this context, Xiao Peng’s philosophy
known as “hide our capabilities and bide our time” is being overhauled a
China’s economy grows, allowing it to project a greater international presence
In the first six months of 2017, 62 million Chinese citizens travelled to other
countries. This number, a size equal to the population of a large country, illus-
trates how Chinese economic performance is increasing its interaction with the
global community.
In many respects China is beginning to behave how any country its siz
should. The difference is that it is now more confident in its worldview and is
more keen to engage in soft power initiatives to, in Xi’s own words, offer “Chinese
wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” In th
last year, China invested some $225 billion overseas, an amount the size of most
large sovereign wealth funds. With a GDP having averaged almost 10 percen
from 1989 to 2017, China has the economic clout to reshape the world with
Beijing at its center.
With the largest standing army at over 2 million personnel, a more active China
could be destabilizing. Its maneuvers in the South China Sea have already worried
neighbors and drawn the attention of the United States. Having purged th
Communist Party of 278,000 officials and in the absence of an obvious successor
it is thought that Xi may seek a third term in 2022. The experience of the next fiv
years will illustrate clearly whether a more assertive China is a blessing or an
unwelcome addition to an already crowded fight for global hegemony.
Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private cli
ents between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)
Twitter: @Moulay_Zai
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