Lloyd Omdahl: Fighting Russian fake news in 2018
"He said to his friend, 'If the British march
By land or sea from the town tonight,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry-arch
Of the North-Church-tower, as a signal light'."
Well, I'm no Paul Revere and my horse is lame
But I'm hanging a lantern all the same.
This time the Russians are coming, make no mistake about it. Yes, to North Dakota. They will arrive as soon as the U.S. Senate campaign involving Heidi Heitkamp and Kevin Cramer is launched. The reason they will be attacking the state's electoral system is that the race looks like a toss-up and they will be flooding social media with fake news, the likes of which Donald Trump has never seen.
The political pundits are predicting that at least 10 states — North Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, Missouri, Indiana, Wisconsin, Florida Tennessee, West Virginia and Ohio — will see extensive Russian activity along with tons of interest group money. It will be the most expensive election in history, with the bidding for each vote starting at $50.
As stated in a previous writing, I do not believe the Russians will be hacking the election machinery for a few votes when they can capture thousands more in the social media by spreading rumors and division. The best defense against rumor-mongering is an informed citizenry that can distinguish between truth and fact. But there is no time for National Government 101 so "we have to go to war with the army we've got." (That expression was coined by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when we went into Iraq).
So how do we protect ourselves and our democracy? The Russians will be attacking our most vulnerable point — an uninformed and disinterested populace. Our lethargy is validated by the statistics. Around 40 percent of the eligible voters don't vote.
In addition to our lack of information endangering us but our own resistance to the truth makes truth impotent. We believe what we want to believe. That applies to politics as well religion.
If we believe that a certain candidate is the greater evil, we are not going to believe that he/she is a faithful church attender, a community leader, a donor to humanitarian causes and a Good Samaritan. We are going to deny the truth regardless of the evidence.
The Russians know that Americans believe what they want to believe so they will exploit our predispositions. All they need do is fan the flames of these predispositions to burn the house down.
In addition to this refusal to accept newer truths, we are also victims of paranoia, more so in North Dakota than most states. (The Minneapolis millers, bankers and railroads are out to get us). We like conspiracy theories so when we see them in the social media about our political opponents, we quickly incorporate them into our thinking.
Given these truths about who we are, how do we do fight the Russian social media invasion?
Various suggestions have been offered, e.g. be wary of unfamiliar URLs, "sponsored content" and bloggers. But, in my opinion, our best defense is verification.
We need to watch the untruths of not only the Russians but also our favorite candidates and their supporters. I have found candidates themselves are honest but their supporters are more reckless with the facts.
We need to check the facts, no matter the source. Check twice if it is coming from your own party because it may not even be your party but the Russians. The more inflammatory, the more likely fake news.
The challenge in 2018 will be separating truth from fake news no matter what we want to believe.
Lloyd Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and professor at UND. His column is published each Monday in the Herald.