NOVEMBER 7, 2020
SOMETIME DURING 2017, I learned that a Russian-sponsored propagandist ran the Blacktivist Tumblr account. I hadn’t suspected a thing. Their inflammatory posts with nothing good to say about Hillary Clinton felt par for the course in Tumblr’s social justice circles.
Not only were the Russian interlopers fluent in American English and its digital dialects, but they had also mastered the psychology of their target communities. Everything from the righteous call-out posts to the decorative text flourishes was pitch perfect. How did they get “us” so right and play us so easily?
David Shimer’s book Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference provides decades of context to one of the most sophisticated acts of propaganda in modern history. American and Russian governments have been meddling in foreign elections since the 1920s, but Vladimir Putin brought disinformation into the digital age. Shimer hopes that by jolting our short memories around the Cold War, we can immunize ourselves against propaganda in the 2020 election and onward. Although he sometimes dips into questionable Cold War rhetoric, Rigged is essential reading for anyone who wants to unpack how Putin interfered with the 2016 United States election and what we need to change.
Rigged’s greatest strength is its access to direct sources. Shimer interviews former US presidents, UN ambassadors, CIA directors, and even a few retired KGB agents. Some interviews are more candid than others. Former CIA official Arturo Muñoz is an unexpected breakout star, explaining America’s propaganda efforts in terms as terse as, “You just pay for it; you just pay people to put stuff in newspapers.”
Former KGB general Oleg Kalugin is also a chilling source on the inner workings of Russian election interference. He uses a period racial term to describe Russian efforts in the 1960s: “We spread anti-Semitic, anti-Negro [materials] inside the United States, just to show that America is behind it all, not Russia, oh no, on the contrary: America is not as it tries to present itself to the world. It’s anti-Semitic; it’s militaristic; it’s the devil.”
If this sounds similar to current efforts to suppress Black voters, Kalugin agrees: “That’s an old Soviet tactic adjusted to the realities of political life today.”
Familiar names from today’s political stage appear regularly in Rigged. Reading about the Clintons, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden in the Cold War’s heyday sheds light on their present-day policy stances. They also remind the reader that top US leadership is a gerontocracy that had no hope of understanding social media until it was too late.
Rigged also reveals the ethical conundrums of foreign policy. It’s tempting to Monday morning quarterback the Obama administration’s handling of Russian interference, but Shimer lays out convincing cases for all routes he could have taken. Rigged leaves readers with the impression that even with all the government’s resources, our leaders are often guessing at the least awful option, especially when it comes to foreign policy.
The voices of regular people are notably absent. It’s strange reading a book where the author can land an interview with a former US president, but not one of the manipulated voters in Chile or Germany. The omission circumvents any meaningful discussion of those voters’ worries, like hunger or violence. Reading the superpower tit-for-tat reminded me of playing a video game, like Civilization, where the people’s grievances are just a number to be managed.
Shimer’s characterization of Putin is delicious. He arrives like a thief in the night after President Yeltsin’s mysterious resignation. We are left to imagine the pile of bodies Putin steps over as he emerges from the KGB. Describing his psychology, Shimer writes,
The fall of the Eastern bloc scarred Putin, who so intimately connected his self-worth with the standing of his country. […] Putin saw threats all around him. His country could not compete with America’s economy, military, or vast network of alliances. But he didn’t have to match the Americans; he just had to disrupt and weaken them. And in the digital age, he found a means to do it.
He sounds like a comic book villain complete with a psychological wound and warped moral code. If that wasn’t enough, Putin is going head-to-head with established characters like Hillary Clinton. I would buy tickets for this movie.
Shimer prefers to have his interviewees do the talking. Chief CIA historian David Robarge says of tampering in the Italian elections of 1947: “We probably gave the [Christian Democrats] enough of a margin — a big margin — to be able to say the election was honest, the Communists lost fair and square.” Shimer lets the absurdity of that statement stand without comment.
For all the deliberation Shimer puts into defining terms like “sovereignty” and “electoral interference,” he lets others remain fungible. Shimer will use “East” versus “West” rhetoric, which has long been troubled in the social sciences. He seems caught between writing a frank history and maintaining that the United States has a moral superiority to Russia. Shimer writes,
Putin and his predecessors have long believed they could use covert electoral interference to weaken foreign democracies, while American presidents, sometimes wrongly, have long believed they could use covert electoral interference to strengthen foreign democracies.
Shimer’s synopsis speaks to the intentions of the people he interviewed, but how would a voter in Chile feel about his distinctions? The problem with the “East versus West” and “communism versus democracy” paradigms is how they obscure the people caught between. Can Soviet leadership say it was communist and antifascist when its extractive relationships with satellite states ended in forced labor and mass starvation? Likewise, can the United States presidents say they were pro-democracy while interfering in elections? Shimer will acknowledge these contradictions and then slip back into conventional American essentialisms about the Cold War. Whether he should have done more to question the entire framework, even in a book with a tightly focused scope, is up for debate.
Rigged comes to its crucial arguments in the final chapters when it calls citizens, journalists, and politicians alike to look inward. He asks for the best of our system to step up and heal itself. Shimer’s practical policy measures for protecting America’s elections should be mailed to every member of Congress. Instead of replacing thousands of electoral jurisdictions with one hackable system, Shimer and election security experts propose implementing basic security measures for states to meet independently. Although it requires a functional Congress, it feels like the most concrete and achievable measure.
Foreign policy measures will fall at the feet of the White House. Shimer has ruled out Trump as a leader on election security, but conceivably a future president could create a coalition of nations against covert electoral interference in all its forms. Retaliatory sanctions against Russia are also on the menu for administrations willing to use them. Lastly, Shimer asks the American government to live by its principles and abandon its own covert election interference efforts for good on the foreign policy front. He is aware a government cannot ask its citizens for change until it cleans its own house.
The rest of Shimer’s guidance feels more soaring: “Policy makers at all levels should work to revitalize what many Americans have lost: a sense of belonging, a shared set of facts, and a stake in their surroundings.” Who can disagree? Putting media literacy in high school curriculums is already in motion. Making a broader epistemological shift will take another book to sort out. Social media changed the knowledge ecosystem in less than a decade, and journalistic institutions have been scrambling to keep up. In a click-based economy, writing the scandalous is profitable.
Rigged calls for restraint from a gluttonous media diet. Social media companies can set up bumpers, but Shimer is also asking for personal responsibility. If the government reports information dumps, journalists should report with context and moderation, putting public welfare above click-bait. Voters, for their part, need to choose “resilience over gullibility.” When Shimer writes, “The United States can again defend the democratic experiment, so long as we, as citizens, are willing to do the work,” he takes a risk on optimism to call for the best in Americans. We’ll see who answers.
Paige Welsh is a dual MA and MFA candidate at Chapman University, where she also teaches rhetoric and composition. Her most recent work appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts.