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Omdahl: The Russians are coming!

By Staff | Jun 16, 2017

Concerned about the civic ignorance of the next generation, Rep. Mike Schatz (R-New England) and several other legislators introduced HB 1337 in the last legislative session mandating the teaching of the basic principles of American government in state high schools.

The bill did not make it through the legislative process but the need for it has become accentuated with the growing suspicion that Russia attempted to influence electoral outcomes in 2016 and will be back in 2018.

The nationwide alarm over the prospect of foreign intervention in our elections tells the Russians that a little hacking can go a long way in the current incendiary political climate.

Because presidential and Congressional elections are conducted by state officials at the state level, our fragmented election administration is a firewall against Russian penetration. And by 2018 all states will be prepared to defend the voting process with the latest in security systems.

So the Russians will not be coming through the election machinery. There is an easier way because we nurture an argosy of social media that can be used to manipulate a gullible electorate.

Since participation does not require competence or honesty, social media is an open invitation to rumor-mongering. Facts are no longer important.

Distrust, fear and hate create a favorable climate for bloggers and self-appointed “journalists” to offer jaundiced truth in this sewer of misinformation and fabrication. We seem to have large blocks of citizens ready to believe anything.

Recent demonstrations against Sharia law have blossomed across the country, inflamed by social media. Anyone who understands the policymaking process will recognize that these demonstrations are sheer foolishness. It would make more sense to demonstrate against black mambas in Africa.

The Russians are a crafty lot. They will recognize a vulnerability when they see one and it won’t be difficult for them to conjure up scenarios that will send chicken littles running into the tall grass.

For example, a confidential source reported that Senator Herbert Jones is proposing legislation to limit gun ownership to one per household.

If the gun lovers thought Barack Obama could take their guns without legislation, they could easily believe that a senator could do the same, the tedious lawmaking process notwithstanding.

How about this Russian-generated rumor about Presidential candidate Ernst Smith: Washington sources have learned that Candidate Smith is proposing a 10-year program to eliminate Medicare. That would result in panic among the aging.

In the world of social media, anything has become believable. Remember when Starbucks removed snowflakes from its Christmas cups in 2015. “Starbucks is trying to take Jesus out of Christmas” was the rage on Twitter. And then there was child trafficking by Hillary Clinton in some Virginia restaurant.

With social media open to all comers, the Russians will be free to hit all of the political hot buttons. And they will do it with impunity because no one is accountable on social media. By the time truth appears the damage has been done. Everyone is already in the street demonstrating.

Unfortunately, this is occurring at a time when the only media newspapers and magazines – that are accountable are declining in readership.

This brings us back to the sponsors of HB 1337 who hoped that a study of American government would provide a little discernment to inoculate the citizenry against deceit and manipulation.

Public opinion in 2018 will be the avenue of intervention by the Russians. Discernment will be critical. Unfortunately, discernment is no longer an appreciated virtue and we will pay a price in 2018.

Omdahl is a former lieutenant governor and former political science professor at UND.

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