News, University News

Pulitzer winner visits Cogut Institute

Anne Applebaum of Washington Post addresses the state of U.S., global politics

By
Senior Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2018

U.S. democracy is not alone in debating conflicting facts, but follows a global trend of polarizing even the most common debate or narrative, said Anne Applebaum — Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian — in her lecture Monday in Pembroke Hall. Applebaum’s speech on disinformation and hyper-partisanship within U.S. and global politics represented the second event of The Greg and Julie Flynn Cogut Institute Speaker Series.

Through her work as a historian, Applebaum has studied instances of the media being used to manipulate citizens but became interested in the “resurgence of new forms of Russian disinformation campaigning in Eastern Europe” about five years ago, she told The Herald.

Some audience members, such as Grace Monk ’18, said they attended because they were interested in the intersection between politics and journalism. Stephen Marsh GS said he was drawn to the lecture because of his interest in the similarities between today’s society and that of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century.

“When I saw how the U.S. election was playing out last year, I couldn’t believe it,” Applebaum said. “Some of the stuff I’ve been writing about for a long time in Poland and Ukraine, suddenly you could see it in the United States.” This obscure topic had suddenly become one of general interest, she added.

Applebaum began by telling the audience to imagine a time when the rapid publishing of new ideas subverted the institutions that controlled access to information. She quickly reminded the audience that she was not talking about the invention of social media but rather that of the printing press in the 15th century.

“Just as the printing press broke the monopoly of power of the monks and priests who controlled the written word in the 15th century, the internet and social media have, within the space of just a few years, helped to undermine not only the business model … used by democratic political media for the past two centuries but the political institutions behind them as well,” Applebaum said.

Applebaum drew parallels between the political divide present in smaller European countries that lack an independent news outlet and the divison within the United States, a country that lacks a neutral media source, she said. This results, she added, in extreme polarization that calls for people to aimlessly choose sides as the center disappears.

This phenomenon has been intensified by social media through the increasing presence of homogeneous clusters known as echo chambers. Individuals now receive their news from their ideologically uniform group of friends on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. This redundancy leaves people distrusting not only politicians but also politics in general. This has led to the election of “ironic or parodic figures” in politics as seen in Iceland, Italy and Serbia, Applebaum said.

There is also a rising distrust of apolitical systems, she said, citing President Trump’s reapplication of the phrase, “enemies of the people” — formerly used during the French Revolution and later by Joseph Stalin — toward the free press.“This new information network is far more conducive than the old one was to the spread of … false rumors, whether generated naturally or imposed from outside,” Applebaum said.

Russia learned how to manipulate these echo chambers early on — through the creation of bots and fake groups — and has been employing these methods for years. Applebaum recalled several false narratives that were quickly adopted by news sources amid the past U.S. election cycle, such as the sex slave ring that Hillary Clinton ran and the notion of Democrats being anti-Catholic.

Applebaum personally saw the spread of disinformation campaigns when an Australian journalist made her the focus of one in 2014. Applebaum watched the false narrative, which tied her to Russian businesses, move through a “very well oiled system.” The story was eventually reproduced on the comment section of Polish newspapers, RT and libertarian Sen. Rand Paul’s website. Wikileaks even retweeted the article to millions of followers.

“It was very unnerving, but I did learn a lot. As I watched the story move around the web, I saw how the worlds of fake websites and fake news exist to reinforce one another and give false credence,” Applebaum said. “Many of the websites quoted not the original dodgy sources but one another.”

There is no clear solution to fake news nor is there one person responsible for solving it, which Applebaum considers the “black hole of the heart of the problem.” But she does think the government should “set the rules for the game,” such as the methods that countries like Estonia are using to reduce the sense of anonymity on the web. She drew attention to responses to past disinformation campaigns, such as how the Reagan administration created the Active Measures Working Group to combat propaganda. Applebaum suggested a similar effort might be necessary today and reminded the audience that it is a citizen’s duty to responsibly navigate through media.

“It may be that we … all have to wake up in the morning and think, … if I care about this issue, what am I going to do about it? Who do I talk to about it?” Applebaum said. “That may have to become a different mode of thinking for all of us. The revival of democracy, which was so dependent on reliable information in an era of unreliable information, is going to be a major civilizational project. Just like it took hundreds of years to end the religious wars in Europe, it might take some time for some solutions of this problem to be found, too.”

“We often … think that there’s something about a liberal arts education that is helping to produce informed citizens and people who have a broad base of understanding about history and culture,” said Amanda Anderson, director of the Cogut Institute for the Humanities and professor of humanities and English. “But the fact of the matter is that we’re kind of in a strange new world where you can’t rely upon some of the things we used to.”