This is a perspective from the Center.
Editor's note: The concept for this blog and some examples within it come from a speech Jonathan Rauch gave entitled “Polarization and Propaganda” at the 2023 Braver Angels Convention in Gettysburg, PA. Rauch is an author, activist, and journalist. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution (Center) and contributing writer at the Atlantic (Left). Watch his speech here.
Many people have asked me what the purpose of bridging the political divide is, beyond making us feel good about ourselves. One reason for learning to listen to each other and decreasing polarization is that it’s a matter of national security.
In 2017, Russian trolls organized on both sides of a protest, advocating for pro-Islam and anti-Islam positions. Vanity Fair (Lean Left) reported that Russia organized dozens of such protests intended to deepen social divisions and that while the protests were often small, they were given legitimacy due to press coverage. Russia has also funded neo-Nazi groups to stoke racial tension before the 2020 election, according to the New York Times (Lean Left).
What is the incentive for Russia to promote division in this way? According to Yuri Bezmenov, a senior KGB defector, “The main emphasis of the KGB is not in the area of intelligence at all, according to my opinion, and the opinion of many defectors of my caliber. Only about 15% of time, money, and manpower is spent on espionage as such, the other 85% is a slow process which we call either ideological subversion or active measures, in the language of the KGB, or psychological warfare. What it basically means is to change the perception of reality, of every American, to such an extent that despite the abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interest of defending themselves, their families, their communities, and their country. Exposure to true information does not matter anymore. A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information, the facts tell nothing to him, even if I shower him with true information, with authentic proof, with documents with pictures.” Russia’s goal is to demoralize and confuse Americans so that they can influence Americans.
Put another way by writer Gurwinder Bhogal,“If everybody lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but that nobody believes anything any longer and a people that no longer believe anything cannot make up its mind and with such people you can then do what you please.”
The tactics used by Russia aren’t unique to foreign interference. Both the right and left have used propaganda and disinformation to sway U.S. elections and sow division.
Trump advisor Steve Bannon said, “The real opposition is the media, and the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s***.” This is a less eloquent way to describe the practices Yuri Bezmenov describes the KGB using. Flooding the media with false information is a way to disorient voters into not knowing what is true. The overwhelm of false claims made by Trump laid the groundwork for Trump’s claims about the 2020 election being stolen.
According to the most recent CNN poll 69% of Republicans and Republican leaning Independents believe that Joe Biden’s election was illegitimate. Meanwhile, Over fifty lawsuits filed by the Trump administration claiming election fraud have been thrown out. Though there has been no evidence to support the claims of election fraud, by flooding the courts, the media was compelled to cover the lawsuits and the accusations. The more the media talked about the claims of election fraud the more people believed them. The repetition of a claim, true or false, will increase the number of people who believe the claim because of the nature of repetition. False news can often spread even faster— a 2018 study by MIT found that false news spread six times faster than true news on social media. In this way, even fact checks which reject claims of election fraud, play into the propaganda by spreading awareness of the claim further and repeating it.
The left is not innocent of propaganda either, though they use different tactics than the right. While the right has been partial to a “firehose of falsehood” approach, the modern left is more likely to shut down speech, creating a sense of false consensus.
Rather than overwhelming Americans with too much information, canceling, which is practiced by both sides of the political spectrum, but more common on the left, creates an environment where no one can know what Americans truly believe.
According to the Knight Foundation, on college campuses Democratic students are the most likely to favor restrictions on certain forms of speech on campuses and 65% of students believe their school’s climate stifles free expression.
There are many examples of canceling, from J.K. Rowling and Kevin Hart’s tweets about the LGBTQ community to Winston Marshall facing backlash over praising a book about ANTIFA. From academics being protested at Yale over their views on cultural appropriation to small businesses being boycotted over perceived racism, and many more.
The effects of this are that people do not feel they can honestly express what they believe. The Cato Institute (Lean Right) found that 62% of Americans say they have political views they are afraid to share. Just like on the right, you cannot discern what is true when only some perspectives are allowed and dissenters are afraid to speak up.
There are several reasons these partisan tactics harm make us more susceptible to foreign propaganda. When we get caught up in culture wars we are not paying attention to the world outside the U.S. and we are more likely to be duped by disinformation because we are not focused on foreign adversaries. We are also more likely to believe the disinformation and propaganda if we are so focused on hating the other party that we are willing to believe the worst of them without stopping to check our facts.
Barack Obama has said, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what is true from what is false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering an epistemological crisis.” If he is right, and there are forces both foreign and domestic working to ensure we can’t distinguish what is true, then how do we protect democracy?
The Solution: Inoculating Ourselves from Disinformation
Bridging is one of the best ways we can immunize ourselves from the threat of propaganda and disinformation. Russia’s divisive tactics will not work if we refuse to polarize in favor of talking to the other side. If we create spaces where people feel comfortable sharing their true opinions and exploring ideas together we will deny the false consensus created by cancel culture and create Americans that are less likely to be swayed by an overproduction of falsities.
Bridging and reducing polarization is far more than a “feel good” conversation, it is the work that protects our fragile democracy from those who wish to tear at its seams.
Clare Ashcraft is the Bridging and Bias Specialist at AllSides. She has a Center bias.
Reviewed by Ethan Horowitz (Lean Right bias) and AllSides Content Designer Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias).