The most successful element of Russia’s 2016 influence campaign pertaining to the presidential election was not getting Donald Trump elected — it was convincing the American people that Russian influence efforts are a partisan issue.
Ever since then, analysts attempting to make objective assertions about the ways Russian influence efforts can affect the American public have been forced to not only attempt to piece together a concrete narrative out of intangible concepts like persuasion, they’ve been forced to do so for publication in a politically aggressive environment. I’ve watched good pieces of objective journalism get torn apart by the internet mob because of some perceived political bias many readers assume exists whenever they see something that makes them feel a bit uncomfortable. When we realize Russian trolls were hard at work bolstering messages that are seemingly no different than our own opinions, we get offended.
Responses may range from eloquent rebuttals to CAPS LOCK-laden rants, but the meat and potatoes of it really boils down to a single three-word phrase: how dare you?
Asserting that Russian influence campaigns are effective is, by its very definition, asserting that Americans are susceptible to influence. It boggles my mind that such a topic is even the subject of debate — in the United States alone last year, $205 billion was spent on advertisements. $83 billion, or close to half of that $205 billion, was spent on digital advertising of the sort you see on your various social media news feeds and in the banners alongside articles on the web pages you frequent. If you’re looking for a frame of reference, that means the private sector of the United States spent $13 billion more on the ads you see on Facebook and the like than the country spent on running it’s entire public school system last year. When you lump all the different kinds of advertising together, it beats out the entirety of all federally funded education, housing, community, international engagement, energy, environmental and even transportation programs combined.
There’s no question in our minds that advertising works. Massive corporations in the United States have been built on the backs of successful advertising campaigns and entire industries have sprung up around analyzing and maximizing the ways in which advertisers engage their audiences. We like to think that we have total control over the decisions that we make, but the truth is, even the grocery stores we frequent on our evening commutes have been intentionally laid out in a way that is meant to influence your shopping habits and persuade you to spend more money.
At some point, we’ll have to accept that, smart and crafty as we are, we humans are also rather fallible. We’re busy, we’re distracted, and we don’t have time to become experts on every news story that hits the front page of the local paper, let alone stay up to date on conflicts unfolding a half a globe away. All these things may sound like excuses for people like you and me, but to the folks that work in advertising, those limitations are opportunities to exploit. We’ve come to accept and even expect that out of advertising, but for some reason we can’t help but cross our arms, square our jaws, and cry foul whenever we see someone suggesting that the same tactics employed to sway you toward one brand over another may be just as effective when used regarding geopolitics.
Branding is big business in the United States, but it’s also important for nations. China uses its considerable economic influence to control the way it’s depicted in Hollywood films. Russia employs an army of trolls to dispute any anti-Kremlin content that starts to gain traction online. North Korea reframed tensions in the region as American bullying in an attempt to elicit international support. Even our own political parties use hot-button topics, keywords, and attack ads to persuade Americans into voting for or against particular candidates. None of this is new, and to be honest, none of it should come as a surprise.
Somewhere between choosing laundry detergent brands and sharing memes about Syria, Americans lost sight of the idea that their own perceptions are subject to manipulation. We shrug at the idea that we’ve been convinced that diamond rings are a traditional part of marriage engagements (they’re not) or that carrots can improve our vision (they won’t), but we stomp our feet and shout “fake news” when someone suggests that our views on serious topics, domestic politics, and even other nations could be subject to the same sort of manipulation.
It isn’t admitting stupidity or gullibility to acknowledge that influence works. It’s acknowledging that we’re human.
As election day looms, remember that the messages you receive through the computer, television, radio, and on billboards all cost money to reach you. People don’t spend that kind of money for no reason — they spend it because there’s a return on investment they’re after. They’re exchanging money for influence. That doesn’t mean every message is inherently bad — it just means it’s intentional.
Look past the message for the intention before you choose to align yourself with one party or another, one cause or another, one candidate or another. Anger is a powerful motivator — so when an advertisement, headline, or message pisses you off, take a minute to recognize that it’s almost certainly by design.
If you’ve ever worn or given an engagement ring, quoted a movie, shared a story on Facebook or voted in an election, it’s usually because of two things. The first is that you’re a human being. The second is that someone persuaded you to feel something.