Learning the news: The Cold War goes viral

Russian Internet trolls look for existing areas of division within the United States and exploit them, writes Roger Plothow.

And you thought the Cold War was over.

According to a Georgetown University professor, it’s back and gone viral on the Internet.

“ … we’re having these debates both in academia and the policymaking world about whether we’re in a new Cold War,” Mark Jacobsen said recently on National Public Radio. “Is this an extension of the Cold War? What makes this different, however, is the speed with which disinformation and fake news can get around the globe.”

Jacobsen co-authored a paper arguing that “troll farms” in Russia are using American social media to fan the flames of discord both inside the U.S. and between America and its European allies.

“This is about breaking down the transatlantic alliance. This is about breaking down American power. This is about keeping America focused inward. And frankly it appears to be working to some degree,” he said.

The idea is pretty simple. Russian Internet trolls look for existing areas of division within the United States and exploit them. When professional football players take a knee during the national anthem, Russian trolls jump on it. They don’t need to create issues – any democracy is rife with issues. They simply seek to turn up the heat.

“What they want to do is encourage division with the hopes of not just prolonging that division, but they hope that it turns violent. And what this does - it forces the United States to look inside and not concern itself with what’s happening across the globe,” he said.

Jacobson says this is a copy of what the Soviet Union attempted to do during the height of the Cold War. The difference, of course, is that technology has made the distribution of disinformation and discord free and easy. Add to that the gullibility of American information consumer and you have a recipe for big trouble.

Some of you probably think I’m too pessimistic, perhaps even fear-mongering. If so, I’m not alone. Here’s part of a recent editorial in the Baltimore Sun:

“The American people deserve a full accounting of Russia’s role in the last election, and Congress must see that they get it. Executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google, many of whom initially dismissed concerns about Russian hacking, have reportedly been called to testify before Congress on what they knew and when they knew it They need to be completely open and transparent. Nothing less than American democracy is at stake.”

Professor Jacobson is pressing Congress to update the regulations enforced by the Federal Elections Commission to regulate campaign-related advertising on the Internet, but he admits that’s a baby step. His main recommendation may sound familiar to regular readers of this page. He all but pleads with elected officials “to support, more broadly, media literacy and civic literacy in our educational system, which frankly is the ultimate defense against this type of disinformation.”

That’s a long-term solution that we all need to get behind. Meanwhile, however, the more immediate solution is pretty basic – we need to develop a healthy sense of skepticism about information we consume. Forget for a moment about media literacy. Forget about critical thinking skills. Just start by questioning everything.

Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.