Special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictments accusing 13 Russians of conspiracy to meddle with the election have now given us a clearer picture of Russian efforts against the United States. Their strategy was simple: infiltrate groups on both the left and the right to heighten rhetoric, and use bots to intensify our discord. As Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of New Knowledge, which studies online disinformation campaigns, said to the New York Times: “The bots focus on anything that is divisive for Americans. Almost systematically.”
It is time that we Americans think hard about how we are going to proceed in the midst of these divisions. These Russian bots are bottom feeders meant to prey on American hate. Where we argue, they amplify. It hardly matters whether we fight about systemic misogyny or racism or a football player or a congressional memo — a foreign power wants us hurt, baffled, confused, ready to insult and be insulted.
We have every right to differing opinions, but we now have to recognize that our own internal arguments are actually a national vulnerability — that a foreign power wants to use our nation’s internal fault lines to weaken and undermine the American project itself.
It is ok — even normal — to feel confused.
It is befuddling to imagine a foreign country systematically undermining a US presidential election over social media. It’s bizarre to realize we’re being attacked daily through our smartphones, using the very media platforms that have generated the past two decades of American wealth. And it is frankly creepy to have been hijacked by the algorithm, a series of mathematical formulae most of us don’t even understand.
This feels unsettling and confusing because these tools are hypermodern. But if the tools of this ambush feel modern, the most basic form of the attack is, frankly, ancient. We might do well to look to the epics — “The Odyssey,” “The Iliad,” “The Aeneid.” The Russians are continuing to offer up division as the ancient apple of discord, which Eris, Greek goddess of strife, tossed towards Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. The apple, purportedly meant for the fairest goddess, fueled a dispute over vanity that resulted, eventually, in the Trojan War chronicled in “The Iliad.”
Eris knew the goddesses would fight endlessly over the apple. She counted on the fact that discord breeds chaos. Indeed, that very chaos set in motion a horrible war, and 10 years of suffering for everyone involved.
In the most enduring symbol of that war, Troy was sacked not by Greeks attacking from outside, but by Greeks who infiltrated by stealth by climbing inside a seemingly harmless hollow horse. They snuck out at night and set Troy on fire, burning a prosperous city to the ground.
Suddenly the shapes seem more familiar: The Russians create discord and chaos amidst us, and then, they attack us from within by spreading misinformation we take into our own homes and lives each day through our smartphones. They want us distrustful and ambivalent, confused and full of hate.
This is real warfare — technological warfare. These tools are new — Homer had never heard of a bot — but at the same time, this form is as old as the epics. And its threat is deeply real. We must see it for what it is. We cannot afford to lose faith in democracy and one another. We cannot afford to get hollowed out from within. We need to act. We need leaders committed to recognizing this attack and routing it out.
The Russians’ strategy is to undermine our faith in one another, and by so doing erode our faith in democracy itself. Nobody is saying that Americans can’t or shouldn’t have deep political convictions, or commitments to activism, or that we all must agree or that this isn’t a time to try the soul. But it’s crucial to acknowledge that, in exploiting our weaknesses, the Russians are showing us that they know that the American project falters most when we allow ourselves to hate or fear one another, when we allow ourselves to act out of prejudice, anxiety and distrust.
We need leaders who value democracy deep in their core, who will fight for its pillars: voting rights and a free press and free speech — our American values — and who will also take a stand against these inner weaknesses Russia is trying so hard to exploit. This is a moment when we need the deepest kind of patriotism we can summon.
Because unlike Odysseus, who after spending 10 years fighting spent 10 years in “The Odyssey” getting back to his homeland of Ithaca from Troy, we don’t have two decades to drift. We have nine months before our next major election.
Americans deserve politicians who are going to steer us through this rocky time, who will be guided by faith in and commitment to our democratic institutions above all else. As for us — when we are offered the apple of discord in our daily lives, on social media or in person, we must not bite. We must now continue to try to find ways to heal our deepest and most painful divides. The time is urgent. We do not want to be left in cinders.