Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive, a show about how change happens. I’m Jason Feifer. Consider the following details and tell me what year I’m talking about. An American presidential election is coming and it feels like the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. A foreign power wants one of those candidates to win, so it begins to interfere in the election by cleverly manipulating the greatest technology of the day. The people who run mainstream media outlets are aware that this is going on but cannot stop themselves from becoming pawns in the manipulation anyway. So, what year is this all happening? Well, 2016 obviously, and 2020 for sure. But also the year 1796. This was the first election after George Washington served his two terms, making it the first contested election in American history, and it’s also the first one in which political parties played a role.

The election was between incumbent vice-president John Adams and former Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. And the country doing the manipulation? The outside force that wanted to tilt the election in the favor of their guy was France.

Jeffrey Pasley: Jefferson was their guy, and if Jefferson were to win, then that would be very good for them.

Jason Feifer: This is Jeffrey.

Jeffrey Pasley: Jeffry L. Pasley, professor of history at the University of Missouri and Associate Director of the Kinder Institute on Constitutional Democracy.

Jason Feifer: And Jeffry says it was no secret why the French wanted Jefferson to beat Adams. France was in the middle of the French Revolution and at war with much of Europe. They wanted America as an ally just as France had supported America during its own recent revolution. And if America wouldn’t pick a side, then France at least wanted America to be a neutral party.

France also wanted to be able to use American soil as a military launching ground so it could try to get back some of its Caribbean islands, like Haiti, which it had lost to revolutions. But under the Washington administration, where John Adams was vice president, America was patching up its relationship with Great Britain, and the French were at war with Great Britain. So France wasn’t happy about any of this and wanted to stop the alliance.

Jeffrey Pasley: They had interfered in things before. There was a treaty with Great Britain, a commercial treaty called the Jay Treaty that the Washington administration had signed and the terms of which were mostly secret. So the French paid to have it leaked.

Jason Feifer: So now we can add leaking to the list of comparisons between 1796 and 2016. Just get some private government correspondence, a commercial treaty in one case, some emails in another, and weaponize them.

Anyway, France saw the 1796 American election as a pivotal turning point. They thought that if Adams won, he’d carry on building a relationship with Great Britain, but Jefferson on the other hand, was seen as pro France. It would be a stronger alliance between France and America. So the French really, really wanted Jefferson.

And as the election of 1796 neared, the French got bold. They had the French ambassador to the U.S. send three letters to Thomas Pickering, America’s then Secretary of State. But the French ambassador also sent these letters to a newspaper called the Philadelphia Aurora, a paper edited by Benjamin Franklin’s grandson, which reached all the important people in Philadelphia, which of course was the temporary U.S. capital at the time, and was also generally sitting around at most taverns. If it was in the Aurora, it would be seen. And it would start conversation, because these letters had a message.

Jeffrey Pasley: With the very explicit intention of swinging the election, essentially saying if they vote for John Adams, there would be war.

Jason Feifer: There would be a war. But that’s not how the letters read, of course. They don’t come right out and say it. Instead, the French just lay the guilt on thick. Here’s a little bit from early in the third letter where the French ambassador is explaining how the French people used to feel so close to Americans.

Voice Clip: They expected to find in the support of the United States, an asylum as sure as home. They sought, if I may use the expression, there to find a second country. The French government sought, they did. Oh, hope. Worthy of a faithful people, how has so been deceived.

Jason Feifer: Then the ambassador recounts many grievances about how the French feel betrayed and if America is Great Britain’s friend, then America can’t enjoy the benefits of being France’s friend too. But there is one way to ensure delicious croissants for everyone, they say. And that is to stop John Adams and elect Thomas Jefferson. Here’s how the French minister says it without saying it.

Voice Clip: Oh, Americans, covered with noble scars. Oh, you have so often flown to deaths and to victory with French soldiers. You who know those generous sentiments which distinguish the true warrior, whose hearts have always vibrated with those of your companions in arms, consult them today to know what they experienced. Recollect at the same time that, if magnanimous souls with liveliness resent in the front, they also know how to forget one. Let your government return to itself, and you will still find in French men faithful friends and generous allies.

Jason Feifer: And, just in case you don’t know how this story ends, it ends with French disappointment, because Thomas Jefferson lost.

Jeffrey Pasley: So, France really didn’t want Adams, but of course they got Adams. They didn’t declare war on us.

Jason Feifer: It was B.S.

Or, as they call bullshit in France…

Voice Clip: [French 00:05:41].

Jason Feifer: So, why am I telling you this? Well, it’s because of a different dirty word.

Voice Clip: In the aftermaths on an unprecedented attack on our democracy.

Adam Hodge is with the DNC.

This is unprecedented.

This is unprecedented for Russia or a foreign country in such a ham-handed and heavy way to be interfering in our political affairs.

Jason Feifer: Unprecedented. When Russia meddled in the 2016 American elections, the leading voices in American media and politics all called it “unprecedented”. But, as we now now, foreign election meddling isn’t unprecedented. It stretches back literally to the earliest days of American democracy. And maybe you think, “Oh, shut up. That’s totally different. Comparing 1796 to our modern times is a rhetorical trick.” But oh, no. You shut up, because you are missing the point. It wasn’t just that once.

David Shimer: After 2016, I was pretty alarmed at how so many commentators and so many policymakers tended to treat Russian interference in the 2016 election as somehow novel or unprecedented.

Jason Feifer: This is David Shimer, a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and a Fellow at Yale University. And he was very concerned about that word “unprecedented.”

David Shimer: Because to me that’s dangerous, because if you treat something as unprecedented, what you’re saying is there’s no history behind it. What you’re saying is it’s never happened before, and that makes it much easier to create rumors, myths, and even lies about a subject.

Jason Feifer: And what kind of rumors, myths, and even lies, might you hear? I mean, let’s set aside the stuff that’s purely political, which it’s a mess in its own right. But what’s some way that mass culture could be impacted? Well, here’s a popular belief, which is captured pretty well in a trailer for a new documentary on Netflix called The Social Dilemma. It is about the many evils of social media.

Voice Clip: If you want to control the population of the country, there has never been a tool as effective as Facebook.

If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more election hacking, more inability to focus on the real issues, we’re toast.

Jason Feifer: Let’s talk about logic for a second. If something bad happens and it is truly unprecedented, then your first step would be to look for a very new cause. That’s logical. If I wake up and discover that my face has turned lime green, which would be an unprecedented problem for me, then I would think, “Well, what did I do yesterday? Did I eat something I’ve never eaten before? Did I touch something I’d never touched before?” New cause, new effect. That’s what I’d be looking for. And that is how if you believe election meddling is new, you would reasonably investigate the thing that is newest, which you could argue is social media.

But what if the problem isn’t unprecedented? What if the problem extends far into the past, when the newest technology we have didn’t exist? That’s what David Shimer wanted to know, so he spent years talking to more than 130 former officials, including 8 former CIA directors and a former KGB general.

David Shimer: So what I wanted to do and what I do in my book is restore history to the subject of covert electoral interference, and to do so, you have to go back a hundred years.

Jason Feifer: A hundred years to understand Russian interference, that is. France may have meddled in America’s very beginning, but what we’ve seen in 2016 and 2020 is actually just the latest in a century-long sustained effort from one nation. David just released the result of his work. It’s a book called Rigged: America, Russia, and A Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference. And on this episode of Pessimists Archive, I want to take you through his findings, because they really help contextualize the conversation that America is having.

And look, I’m going to say this right upfront. There is no easy answer to the question of election meddling, nor am I looking to diminish the subject. I’m looking to do the opposite, actually. I’m looking to say, “This is complicated. But over and over throughout history, including right now, we’ve tried to turn complicated problems into simple ones, generally by pinning them on whatever the newest innovation is.” Juvenile delinquency could be stopped by destroying pinball machines. For people who saw women’s roles growing in the workplace as a problem to solve, well the culprit was bicycles, novels and teddy bears. And Russian interference on the American election? Well, that was social media.

Simplify a problem and you are unable to solve it, because you can’t see its fullness. It’s that simple. So let’s un-simplify this a little, because the crazy thing about the history of election meddling is you will see the same tactics over and over again. Ready for the real repetitive history of bad behavior from abroad? It is coming up after the break.

All right, we’re back. Before we get into the history of Russia screwing with other people’s elections, let me address a common technological skepticism that you may already be thinking as I start comparing yesterday’s meddling to today’s. I actually just saw it play out on Twitter recently, with someone who tagged us in a discussion. By the way, we are @PessimistsArc, Pessimists A-R-C on Twitter. Check us out.

So, okay. Here was the exchange. First, it was @TheTheoLogan who tweeted…

Voice Clip: Do you ever wonder what kind of damage is being done to our psyche on social media, jumping from one post that enrages us to then jump to another that brings us joy? Is that healthy?

Jason Feifer: And then, @thederekmast replied in a very Pessimists Archive-y way.

Voice Clip: People made the same argument for newspapers.

Jason Feifer: To which @TheTheoLogan made the very common retort…

Voice Clip: I don’t know if that’s an apt comparison. Do newspapers update as quickly as social media feeds?

Jason Feifer: Obviously, they do not. And I hear this a lot. It’s what I think of as the “this time is different argument.” As in, “You can’t compare yesterday’s technology to today’s, because this time is different. Today’s technology is just much more powerful.” But I talked about this with Jeffrey, the historian at the University of Missouri and he said, “You know, the thing you have to appreciate about technology and history is, it’s all relative.”

Jeffrey Pasley: The thing is, it’s all just a matter of speed. In those days, the fact that you could hear something that only happened six weeks ago in Europe, that was a big deal. We think, “Wow, I can look at my phone and know whatever’s happening in the world.” And they thought that about the four page newspaper that they had.

Jason Feifer: Think of technology in terms of its relative experience. Yeah, fine, our phones are fast. But our phones are fast compared to what? To dial-up modems, I guess. But do you think that in a hundred years people will think that the phones we use today are fast and complex? No. They’ll think that they were stupid toys made for babies. Fast isn’t objective. Engrossing isn’t objective. It’s all subjective. So if you live in a world in which it used to take months or years for information to travel and now you’ve got a system of ships to move information across oceans and a printing press to cheaply distribute the news to basically all the people who could vote and make influential decisions, well, that feels fast. That feels like an addictive, insane, overwhelming amount of information, just as Twitter does to us now.

Jeffrey Pasley: We have our speed fetish where we assume that this all something that we invented, but they were gobsmacked. It was a communications revolution for them.

Jason Feifer: So, all right. Keep that in mind as we now look at how the technology of the day was used to interfere in elections throughout history. And we are going to turn back to David Shimer to tell us about it. He interviewed, again, 130 former officials for his book Rigged. And before we even get into how Russia meddled with elections for the past one hundred years, David wanted to clarify what covert election interference is even for, because this too has been simplified in the modern conversation.

David Shimer: There is a temptation, I think, with every covert electoral interference operation to say that if you are engaging in covert action to influence a process of succession in another democracy, that every operation to do so is the same. And that didn’t exactly sit right with me at the outset of my research, because if you had a Soviet operation or an American operation with wildly different objectives with the same ideas to manipulate an election to achieve those objectives, there has to be something that’s both the same and different across these two operations.

Jason Feifer: So, let’s unpack that. First of all, note that David said “Soviet and American operations,” because it’s not like America never interfered with foreign elections. It has. And as David studied the intentions of these two nations, he found two distinct objectives, which he calls either individual change or systemic change. Individual change is the smaller one. This is when a foreign nation just wants to pick the friendlier winner. They think that they’ll benefit from having a particular person in power, like when the French wanted Thomas Jefferson over John Adams. Systemic change is when a foreign power wants to influence another nation’s very system of government.

David said that on individual change, America and Russia are basically the same. Both have inserted themselves into elections around the world with this very objective. But with systemic change? They are playing different games.

David Shimer: There are differences there between American and Soviet operations targeting elections not around coup plotting or other forms of regime changes, just around who you support, which is that Moscow tends to support disruptive authoritarian minded candidates, whereas the justification for American operations has tended to be we need to support this centrists candidates, because they will maintain their democracy, so the ends justify the means, the means being we’re going to manipulate this democracy in order to safeguard it, which is a very tense proposition, and that tension has played out over time.

Jason Feifer: Again, we are not talking about one or two elections here, we’re talking about patterns over one hundred years. America’s idea of systemic change is to help strengthen other’s democracies. Russia’s idea of systemic change is to weaken other’s democracies. So what does that look like and why had this been going on for a hundred years? Well, it starts at the very founding of the Soviet Union in 1922.

David Shimer: Vladimir Lenin founded something known as the Communist International, which was an international body meant to unite the communist parties of the world and form a revolution abroad. And what Lenin sought to do was provide money, counsel and support for propaganda organs to get communists elected so that those communists could then abolish their governments, abolish their preexistent borders, and fulfill Lenin’s vision for the world.

Jason Feifer: That didn’t succeed, of course, but it did put nations like the U.S. and the U.K. on high alert. Then, the Soviets really stepped things up after World War II, when Joseph Stalin’s forces go marching around Eastern Europe and interfere really blatantly in elections in places like Poland and Hungary. There, you’ve got millions of pieces of propaganda distributed, and you’ve got ballots being tampered with, and you’ve got ballot stuffing, which is literally what it sounds like.

David Shimer: Like, you would literally have caravans full of soldiers riding from polling place to polling place just putting ballots for their preferred candidates into the boxes of polling places. Like, the most egregious form of ballot stuffing that you can imagine.

Jason Feifer: And so, American sees this and thinks, “Ah, crap. We’ve got to do something.” Which is why Harry Truman authorizes the CIA to engage in covert action to influence the Italian election in 1948 with a massive, massive propaganda campaign. And now, it is really game on.

David Shimer: So in fact, the starting point of CIA covert action was electoral interference.

Jason Feifer: So now, America and the Soviets are running around the world trying to save or destroy democracies by influencing elections. But of course, eventually these nations start targeting each other directly too. And this is where you start to see super interesting parallels to what we saw in 2016. So first of all, the Russians making direct contact with a presidential campaign? Not new.

David Shimer: In 60 and 68, the Soviet ambassadors to the United States directly approached first Adlai Stevenson and then Hubert Humphrey, who were leading democratic politicians of their day with direct offers to help them get elected president.

Jason Feifer: Both either rejected or ignored the offer. And here’s another thing that will sound really familiar. The KGB would try to find private information about the presidential candidate they didn’t like and then they would release that publicly to hurt that candidate.

David Shimer: In 1976, they tried to do that with Henry Scoop Jackson, a democratic presidential candidate. They couldn’t find damaging private information some they made it up, and then they sent that file to a bunch of different news platforms and presidential campaigns. They opted not to run and so the operation failed, but the same idea you saw in 2016 with WikiLeaks was present there.

Jason Feifer: And here was another tactic the KGB used. Find existing divisions among Americans and exploit them.

David Shimer: I spent about half a day with a former KGB general interviewing him for my book, I went through hundreds of pages of KGB archives, and what came out was that the KGB or the Soviet objective, was to show the world that America was just a hotbed of hate. That’s a quote. To show that it was dysfunctional, that it was unenviable, that no country should want to be like the United States. So the motivation, therefore, was to emphasize fissures in America, exploit fissures in America, and then advertise those fissures to the globe.

Jason Feifer: For example, in 1960, various United Nations delegations from across Africa and Asia received a disgusting racist note that had been signed by the KKK. The delegations were understandably offended, and the Nigerian ambassador actually read the letter for the record at the United Nations’ General Assembly, prompting the U.S. delegation to get up and apologize on behalf of the United States. But as it turned out, the KKK didn’t send that letter at all. The KGB did.

David Shimer: And it’s recorded in the KGB’s archives how thrilled they were that this letter got such traction, that America was humiliated on the world stage based on a letter, that again, was said to have been signed by the KKK, but was actually signed by the KGB.

Jason Feifer: David also found record of a plot the KGB thankfully never executed, but you can see where their head was at. They planned to detonate a bomb in a predominantly Black neighborhood in America and then make it look like the bomb was planted by the Jewish Defense League.

Do you think that it’s reasonable for me to draw a line between the objectives of the things that you just said and the objectives of troll bots on Twitter?

David Shimer: Oh, absolutely. One of the greatest myths about 2016 is that Vladimir Putin invented something, or that his objectives were somehow new. They were not. Everything that Russia did in 2016 was a continuation of the past. One of those continuations was about sewing discord. Based on the interviews I did with the CIA’s director, deputy director, the DNI in 2016, the leading objective of Russia’s 2016 operation was to sew discord, discontent, chaos, in American society. It should be surprising to no one that the IRA, the Russian troll farm that was involved in ’16 targeted predominantly Black Americans. That is a tradition of Russian and Soviet intelligence, to seek the fan racial discord in order to divide Americans from one another and also to discredit the American model in the eyes of the world. And a long running pattern here is that the more divided America, the more vulnerable America becomes. Russia doesn’t create fissures, Russia identifies fissures that already exist and exploits them, worsens them, exacerbates them. That’s what the Russians were doing in 2016 just as that’s what the KGB was doing during the Cold War. It’s a long running idea. The internet just presents new avenues, new pathways to do it.

Jason Feifer: So if the internet is just a new tool for old tricks, as David says, then I was curious what other technologies have been used in nefarious ways. If you dig through old media archives, for example, you’ll find a lot of people pondering how radio will alter politics. Now, the early days of radio, in general, were met with a lot of debate about whether radio was healthy, whether it was too addictive, whether it filled our lives with unhealthy amount of information and communication. People worried that radio would harm children’s minds with conversations. That sounds exactly like how people talk about social media today.

There is a great New York Daily News headline from 1932, for example, that said, quote, “When it’s homework or radio, to child radio’s the winner.” But on the question of politics, the early days of radio actually brought out a lot of optimism. People wrote about how it could strengthen democracy and increase participation. In 1928, the magazine Popular Science, ran a piece that started by saying…

Voice Clip: This year, radio will elect a president.

Jason Feifer: But that wasn’t meant to be a bad thing. Popular mechanics offered a very optimistic view of how radio would change the electorate. Saying, for example, that this new form of mass media would…

Voice Clip: Give people a wider understanding of concrete governmental problems.

Jason Feifer: Which maybe was overly optimistic. But it also said that…

Voice Clip: By enabling speakers to talk directly to millions, make it possible for a man to be bigger than his party.

Jason Feifer: Which, I think we can all agree, turned out to be true. That same year, in 1928, an article in Collier’s magazine said…

Voice Clip: The radio, properly used, will do more for popular government that have most of the wars for freedom and self government.

Jason Feifer: But of course, the story got more complicated. Cut to 1936, and the New York Times is running a story headlined “Europe’s radio jitters.” It says…

Voice Clip: Back in the days when radio was younger than it is now, it was thought that the possibility of nations speaking direct to nation over the air held out the prospect of better international understanding. But now that the European radio is expanding from its original national basis and nation is, at last, speaking direct to nation, the net result so far seems to be a gathering flurry of propaganda charges.

Jason Feifer: In particular, Europe was rightly concerned that Hitler was using radio very effectively. And just to speed history around here, now jump to the 1980s, when people living in Florida, but also as far away as Texas, might turn on the radio every night to find this.

Voice Clip: This is Radio Moscow. Here is the news. First the headlines.

Jason Feifer: That is Radio Moscow being broadcast from Havana. So I asked David Shimer about this, our Russian election meddling historian. I asked him how radio played a role in election interference. And he said you’ve got to first consider a couple things. One…

David Shimer: It’s important to distinguish between what’s overt and what’s covert.

Jason Feifer: Radio Moscow in the 1980s was like the television station RT today. There is no hiding that it’s state sponsored media. It is literally right there in the name. But when I pressed him on how specific technology had been used across time, he said, “Look, the technology is never really the driving force.”

David Shimer: I mean, the perhaps discomforting reality about covert electoral interference operations is they don’t have to be technologically advanced, really. They often thrive in the most basic ways, just identifying, targeting and manipulating people, figuring out ways to get propaganda in front of people in a precise and targeted way. So what this looked like in the past, now Russia targets, or let’s say corrupts a social media platform. Before, that meant corrupting a newspaper, it meant corrupting a television station or a radio channel in order to plant propaganda that would then ripple more widely.

Jason Feifer: And how would you do that? Well, it’s simple really. At any given time in any given medium, you just figure out the way into people’s attention. Today, it’s troll farms and algorithms, and yesterday, it was people.

David Shimer: Used cut outs or middle men, like recruiting a vulnerable reporter to basically just launder your messaging through their platform and then other platforms would pick up what that reporter published, and the idea was that the messaging would spread across the information environment of the country you were targeting.

Jason Feifer: So fake news.

David Shimer: There was fake news long before there were trolls and bots.

Jason Feifer: So, okay. What have we learned here? In short, what happened in 2016 and what’s happening in 2020 is not unprecedented. Not even close. It is the continuation of one hundred years of sustained efforts by Russia, and for that matter, the continuation of efforts from foreign nations that date back to the very beginning of the American experiment. And although social media has become a useful way to spread misinformation today, it is simply the latest tool in which to do that. So if you want to solve a problem, you cannot act like it’s Twitter or Facebook’s fault entirely. You cannot say, “Oh, these are the newest things and they caused the problem.” Because as David Shimer said earlier…

David Shimer: If you treat something as unprecedented, what you’re saying is there’s no history behind it. What you’re saying is it’s never happened before, and that makes it much easier to create rumors, myths, and even lies.

Jason Feifer: So what is the solution if it’s not to throw Mark Zuckerberg in jail? What goes beyond the rumors, myths, and even lies? Well, that is a big question with no simple answer, because it is not a simple problem. But I will share what I found, and it’s coming up after the break.

All right, we’re back. So we’ve dispensed with the idea that today’s electoral interference is unprecedented, or even new, or reliant upon modern technology. So what next? Well, I put that to the two historians I talked to for this episode and their answers were sweeping. First, here’s Jeffrey L. Pasley from the University of Missouri, who said that the first thing we need to do is reframe the problem.

Jeffrey Pasley: Even when we say “meddling” like this, it’s an assumption that we’re this kind of bubble that somebody can get inside, and we’re never a bubble. I mean, we are never this isolate. People swing around [inaudible 00:31:55] America’s exceptionalism, but one part of this is the idea that America is naturally isolated from the rest of the world, and that wasn’t true in the 18th century, and it’s never been true. Everybody who deals with us in some major issue, probably thinks they have some interest in who’s going to win, who’s in power here, just the way we do about other countries that we deal with. So there’s some level in which we should just get used to that idea and assume that’s happening.

Jason Feifer: When he said that to me at first, it just sounded depressing. It sounded like, “What are you going to do?” But no. No. The more I thought about it and the more I listened to him, the more I realized that he’s giving us an important way to think. He’s saying, “Look, America needs to face reality, and reality is that it is not some self-contained space. The entire world feels invested in the outcome of America’s elections, so the country top to bottom needs to build that into its operating system. It needs to expect it. It needs to sure itself up. Because come on.”

Jeffrey Pasley: If false stories on social media is enough to actually destabilize us, then I guess we weren’t that stable to begin with.

Jason Feifer: So get it together, America. And how exactly do we do that? Well, Rigged author, David Shimer, has a plan.

David Shimer: If Russia is seeking to tear down our democracy, which it is, then we need to renew our democracy, both at home and aborad. And what that looks like at home is tackling both forms of covert electoral interference, efforts to alter ballots and efforts to influence minds.

Jason Feifer: Then, he started running through a list.

David Shimer: The first thing we need to do is secure our election infrastructure, whether that means passing mandatory cybersecurity standards for states or otherwise, because so long as our actual systems are vulnerable to manipulation and sabotage as they were in 2016, our government will find it very difficult to respond to this threat in a fluid and comprehensive way because of the fear of that worst case scenario of an election, a cyber attack.

Jason Feifer: But protecting democracy goes beyond protecting voter infrastructure. So point number two, guard against the manipulation of voters and start with a focus on the latest tactics.

David Shimer: Which are [inaudible 00:34:10] release of emails and social media manipulation. With emails, what that means is reporters being more cognizant of the source of the stolen materials they’re covering rather than just the messages contained within them. It means citizens being less gullible and being mindful of the fact that someone’s trying to play them, and caring about that, questioning why they’re seeing the information they’re seeing. And it’s on the government to attribute anonymous email releases in a more timely manner so that Americans have the information they need to know, “Okay, this was acquired by Russia, and therefore we know that it’s Russia wants us to see this, and there’s a reason for that.” Because as long as this stays anonymous, it’s very difficult to make that assessment from the perspective of the public.

Jason Feifer: I love that because it puts the onus on every stakeholder. A big part of the message from people who blame technology for social ills is to say, “Oh, we are powerless against this force of dark magic.” And David is like, “No.” Everyone has a role to play here, from the people putting out information to the people consuming it. And of course, that does extend to the people running social media companies. David says these companies must be more transparent and responsible. They have a role in recognizing how they’re being played and stopping it. He said regulation could play a role here, though he didn’t say how. But the way he sees it, social media is just one part of a far larger ecosystem of media, and for that matter, the system by which we build and grow and maintain community. And all of that needs tending to.

David Shimer: More divided a democracy, the more vulnerable a democracy. So the more we invest in ourselves, in local media, in public education, in our infrastructure, in healing racial divisions, that makes us less vulnerable to subversion for the tactics of the future, because Russia’s methods will continue to evolve.

Jason Feifer: And finally, there is a major role to be played by the American and world governments themselves. Here is David explaining that and taking his argument home.

David Shimer: America needs to renew its leadership abroad. We need to work with a coalition of democracies both to identify these operations that target our elections, but we also needs to impose jointly costs on Russia for executing these types of operations, because so far, Vladimir Putin has suffered minimal consequences for interfering in the heart of so many democracies, which is their elections, and until that changes, there’s no reason to believe that his calculus will change in terms of pushing hard to sabotage the democratic process of succession and to manipulate the directions of foreign democracies in a way that suits his interests. And I think if we do both of those things, I think if we tackle our vulnerabilities at home with both our infrastructure and along propaganda lines, and if we also work with our allies to deter Russian interference, we won’t be solving this problem by any stretch, because again it will persist, but we’ll be in a much better position than we are now, which is basically no real effort to defend ourselves at home in the part of so many of the actors I mentioned, and no real effort to punish the perpetrators of these operations abroad.

Jason Feifer: Does any of this sound easy? No, of course. But you know what? That is the point, because the story of election interference is really an object lesson in treating big problem as big. And that may sound stupid and obvious, but I don’t know guys. This seems to be something we have trouble with the earliest age. I have little kids, and one of the books they love is called Big Dog, Little Dog, by P.D. Eastman, which is about a big dog and a little dog. A big dog named Ted and a little dog named Fred. And they’re best friends, but total opposites, and one day, they go on a trip and sleep in a hotel, and that is where the trouble begins. Ted, the big dog, sleeps in a small bed, and Fred, the little dog, sleeps in a big bed, and they both get a terrible night’s sleep. They can’t figure out why the next morning, until the little bird arrives. Here’s the book.

Voice Clip: “I know what to do,” said the bird. “Ted should sleep upstairs and Ted should sleep downstairs.”

Jason Feifer: Which is to say they need to switch rooms. So the dogs run back to the hotel and get in the beds that actually fit them and fall fast asleep. And then, the bird flies over and delivers the moral of the story.

Voice Clip: Well, that was easy to do. Big dogs need big beds. Little dogs need little beds. Why make big problems out of little problems?

Jason Feifer: And that’s a great message for kids because kids are constantly making big problems out of little problems. But adults? Well, adults do the opposite. They make little problems out of big problems, and it’s easy to imagine why. Big problems are hard. They’re not easily fixed. And they’re also really inconvenient. They require work from everyone, people who don’t generally agree with each other, and this work is not going to be work that everyone likes. And accomplishing it, is at once Herculean and very grinding and systemic. Big problems don’t generally produce heroes, because they require too many people and they’re too complicated to fit into a narrow spotlight, so you’ve got to buy into that. But if you’re a senator running for reelection or a television pundit or the maker of a documentary series about the dangers of social media? Well, you are not going to get a lot of traction with huge, seemingly impossible hundred-point plans to fix something as big as American elections. But if you can shrink it down to something simplistic, down to one villain, to something that you personally can tackle yourself, well, then you can be the hero, all eyes can be on you. And that is why it’s so tempting to make little problems out of big problems.

So here is my proposal. Whenever we hear someone say that they have an answer to a big problem, and they are able to say that answer in the length of a television soundbite, then we should reply with two words, and here they are. “What else?” What else? It is a modest proposition, I think. “What else?” Is a cry for complexity. “What else?” Is a push for more. “What else?” Has a built-in logic that what you’ve heard is just part of the story, and maybe even a justifiable part of the story. But if it’s treated as the only part of the story, then mistaking a campfire for a forest fire is what you are going to do, because boy, we have got ourselves a fire. But not an unprecedented fire, and not even a new fire. It’s just a fire. So who has got solutions? Please, bring them. And then, let’s all say, “What else?”

And that’s our episode. But hey, speaking of that Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, a bunch of listeners of this show reached out to tell us about a particular moment that oh, boy, they should have done some fact-checking in that movie. Want to hear something really egregious and that frankly gives you a good insight into how desperately people want to simplify complex problems? I’ve got it for you in a minute. But first, if you love Pessimists Archive, then we’d really appreciate if you subscribe, tell a friend and give us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts and stay in touch. You can follow us on Twitter or Instagram @PessimistsArc, Pessimists A-R-C, where we are constantly sharing the ill conceived words of pessimists throughout history. You can also reach us by email at [email protected] and our website where we have links to many of the things you heard in this episode is pessimists.co. And also, we are now sending out an amazing weekly newsletter full of fun, pessimistic predictions from the past. You can sign up by going to our site pessimists.co and clicking on “Newsletter” at the top.

Pessimists Archive is me and Louis Anslow. Sound editing by Alec Balis. Our webmaster is James Steward, our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The voices you heard reading some articles in this episode were Gia Mora, you can find her at giamora.com, and Brent Rose, find him at brentrose.com. And we are grateful for the help from Pen Name Consulting.

Pessimists Archive is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better, and is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that is you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. That is cki.org.

All right, so the documentary The Social Dilemma. A movie that describes itself as being about, quote, “The dangerous human impact of social networking,” end quote. A movie that’s basically a handful of tech critics who used to work in tech who say dire things about social media over and over again, but offer little in the way of solutions. One of those people is Tristan Harris, from the Center for Humane Technology. And at one point, he looks directly at the camera, and as a way of proving how uniquely dangerous today’s technology is, he says…

Voice Clip: No one got upset when bicycles showed up. Right? When everyone started to go around in bicycles, no one said, “Oh my god, we just ruined society.” Like, “Bicycles are affecting people, they’re pulling people away from their kids. They’re ruining the fabric of democracy, people can’t tell what’s true.” We never said any of that stuff about a bicycle.

Jason Feifer: Are you kidding, Tristan? Who fact-checked this movie? Nobody, I guess. We did a whole Pessimists Archive episode about how people thought the bicycle was the end of the world. Here are literal headlines from newspapers during the dawn of the bicycle in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here they are. “Do bicycles hurt books?” “Excessive use of bicycle fatal.” “Do bicycles increase selfishness?” “Bicycles are blamed for youth’s insanity.” “Bicycles affect church attendance.” And it could go on and on and on like that, and if you are not willing to study these things and to take them seriously and to understand how the reactions of today are connected to the reactions of yesterday, then you are left to treat every new thing as unprecedented. And again, just to hear it one more time…

David Shimer: And that makes it much easier to create rumors, myths, and even lies about a subject.

Jason Feifer: So what else do you have, Tristan? What else?

That’s it for this time. Thanks for listening to Pessimists Archive. I’m Jason Feifer and will see you in the near future.