Former President George W. Bush’s speech this week in New York City flagged a malign force in the world: the “sustained attempt by a hostile power” to feed and exploit America’s divisions.
“According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other,” Bush said. “This effort is broad, systematic, and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social-media platforms.” He urged new efforts to secure the American electoral system against subversion in the digital sphere.
I agree with that prescription. But I’ve long thought that evidence of online political manipulation by Russia suggests a need for something beyond changes in policy. Internet users should change their comportment, showing more charity to competing political tribes and exhibiting less pessimism about the state of U.S. politics.
Yes, there’s good cause for pessimism—and plenty of homegrown ugliness and idiocy.
Yet it’s certain that at least some of the off-putting behavior that the most digitally engaged Americans encounter is fakery created to make us think less of one another.
Our authentic online behavior isn’t quite as bad as we imagine.
This first occurred to me back in 2015 when I read Adrian Chen’s “The Agency,” an impressive look at an operation in St. Petersburg, Russia, where “an army of well-paid trolls” tried to wreak havoc in American communities, fabricating a “toxic fume” disaster in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and an ebola outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia.