News about Russia “aiding Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination,” and the U.S. intelligence community telling the Senate the Russians are attempting to “influence the 2020 election” takes me back 52 years, to when I joined the U.S. Army.
While studying journalism at the University of Minnesota (advertising, 1968), I went shopping for an Army Reserve unit to join (to control my enlistment timing, rather than waiting around to be drafted). My major appealed to a St. Paul-based army reserve unit: A psychological operations (psy-ops) battalion.
The logic: Psy-op’s mission is to persuade, and to alter the behavior of a target audience. That’s what advertising is all about. It was a good fit. I joined.
Of my 20 Army Reserve years, 18 were in psy-ops. I was an intelligence analyst, trying to keep track of what was then happening in Haiti, our psy-ops unit’s area of interest, and later I was a TV production supervisor, under the assumption the army might take over a local TV station in some country.
Around 1978 we deployed to Fort McCoy to help with handling thousands of Cuban refugees released to the U.S. under Castro’s Mariel boatlift. I managed a psy-ops team assigned to “placate and mellow out” these young Cuban males while their in-processing was underway.
Eventually I was commissioned as a captain and retired as a psy-op officer.
These memories got me thinking about the Russian (or Ukranian or Iranian) interference with our election from a psy-ops perspective.
If you had told me, back when I was training in how to get mass foreign populations to behave in a manner that served “the best interests of the U.S.,” that someday there would be magic system through which I could create a psy-op message (that is, propaganda, misinformation or disinformation) in a few minutes or hours, distribute it instantly to a few hundred “local plants” in the target population or even to malleable low-information locals, many of whom would instantly redistribute it to hundreds more like them, who would, in turn, send it to hundreds more, I’d have thought we had landed in psy-ops heaven.
And this is exactly what these foreign sources are able to do today, and some in our news media, political establishment, campaigns and social media technology companies are complicit.
A large problem is in the way this issue is messaged. Many carelessly refer to the scheme as “election hacking” or “interfering in our election,” conjuring images of some geek messing with voter registration, ballot counting machines or paper ballot counting, etc., intent on altering vote counts or votes cast.
Those conducting this psy-op campaign are being more subtle than actually tampering with anybody’s vote, ballot or registration. They’re simply trying to delegitimize the 2020 election process. One hope is that as a result millions will just not vote. They’ll have become so confused, artificially enraged, or disillusioned with our democracy they’ll figure voting just isn’t worth it.
Or, the meddlers hope, people who do vote will do so with fears brought on by deception, disinformation and misinformation, and their choice will be somebody foreign forces want in power — or the primary election candidate easiest for the side they support to either defeat or delegitimize in the 2020 general election.
We can’t let this happen. It’s probably outside the U.S. government’s power to convince us of this. Who would believe them in these fractured times, anyway? It’s up to everyone.
Read, view and listen carefully. Be skeptical. Doubt what you hear, see or read. Check multiple trusted sources to confirm what you read, then act responsibly. For a change of pace, try some of the less political leaning news sources, such as the PBS NewsHour or MPR, or a variety of news and opinion available everyday in the Star Tribune, to get a well-rounded and non-hyperbolic overview of this confusing world.
Paul Linnee is retired and lives in Bloomington.