Russian Hacking and Divisive News Cycles

In 2014, the death of Michael Brown became the focal point of first the Ferguson protests and then the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just a couple months earlier, Eric Garner had been strangled to death on Staten Island by police on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, while everything was caught on film.¬†Michael Brown’s death had not been caught on film, but there had been video evidence of him robbing a convenience store and assaulting the store clerk moments before his altercation with a police officer. A later Justice Department investigation also found no wrongdoing on the part of the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

So the question is, why did the Michael Brown case get so much more attention than the Eric Garner case? Even Bill O’Reilly thought what happened to Eric Garner was unfair. Scott Alexander suggests the most successful stories are those that are controversial. A story that only induces frustration in one side doesn’t foment much of a debate. But on a controversial or murky topic, one can signal their loyalty to their tribe much more strongly; you really care about police brutality if you criticize the police when there’s no video evidence in Ferguson. Criticizing the police when there’s clear evidence of an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner doesn’t get you points.

Of course, even if the Michael Brown case was a bad example, the general topic of police abuse is important. I can’t say the same for the continued interest in this Russian Hacking story. For those who don’t know, the Clinton campaign accused the Russian government of hacking into the DNC’s email server, during the campaign. Trump denied that we knew for sure it was Russian state-sponsored hacking. More recently, US intelligence agencies have claimed they have evidence of Russia being involved, including high level Russian officials. They have also claimed they cannot show this evidence to the public as it would compromise their intelligence.

From top to bottom, the entire story is just so boring to me. This “hack” was apparently just a spear-phishing attack, something that is fairly easily avoided by not clicking on the wrong links in your email. Or using two-factor authentication. People are hacked this way every day, but it’s reasonable to have slightly higher expectations for political officials. But again, these weren’t political officials in office, it was the DNC in an election year. What was hacked was also not particularly valuable; we saw a bunch of emails of DNC officials being politicians. Yes, it put the DNC in a bad light, looking like they were colluding with the Clinton campaign to have her win the primaries…but what exactly is the point of a political party if not to try and win political office? The DNC obviously thought Hillary had a better shot than Bernie. That’s not a crazy idea. Moreover, most of these emails came long after Bernie had fallen behind in the delegate count anyway.

The only people these emails could have surprised are those unfamiliar with politics or those not skeptical enough (and not this blog). It seems quite possible that Russia was indeed behind these attacks; they have the capabilities and the motivation as the Clinton State Department was quite annoying to Russian foreign interests. Trump has signaled a much more dovish approach to Russia, as well as an admiration for Putin’s strong man policies. There’s some uncertainty, but the Clinton campaign, Obama administration, and now US intelligence all insist Russia was involved and trying to “influence” the US election…by releasing accurate exact transcripts of emails of DNC officials. Ok.

What if these accusations are true? Suppose Russia did sponsor very simplistic attacks on the DNC email server and then released those emails to the public in order to make Clinton less popular. Who cares? Russia doing this doesn’t change the content of the emails; what if a whistleblower at the DNC had leaked them? It changes nothing.

And while we’re talking about changing nothing, I’m under the impression that these emails changed very little. Trump voters weren’t exactly huge DNC and Clinton fans before they read these emails; neither were Bernie supporters. I doubt this had much impact on the election.

Many on the left have been shocked Trump won’t admit Russia was behind this hack, but it’s such a low stakes thing, I can’t imagine it would much change his position towards Russia. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly said much more heinous and horrific things, likely in the week prior to you reading this blog post.

To continue the absurdity, recently US intelligence agencies released a report detailing why they think Russia was behind the hack. The report is embarrassing. It has no details or evidence, and it spends the majority of its pages talking about the Russian state-sponsored news station RT and how it criticizes the US government. I’m still fairly confident that Russia is indeed behind this hack, but the report makes American intelligence look completely incompetent, and its evidence of the hack purely circumstantial.

Ok, I’m going to stop talking about this non-story. The problem is that this non-story has continued for weeks without my help. I bring it up only to show the truly insidious nature of a divided outrage news cycle. This debate being had on Russian hacking is based on little and has essentially no relevance to the very real challenges we face. The president-elect has continuously vowed to challenge free trade ideas which will seriously harm the global and domestic economy. He’s planned to use executive authority in insane ways to violate civil liberties, including torturing people, committing war crimes,¬†and depriving people of due process. We ought to be talking about those issues and what Congress will be doing to thwart him, but instead we are caught up arguing about email phishing scams.


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