For all the advertisements and television shows I’ve seen about my favorite travel destinations, I’ve found the best way to learn about a place is to go there.
Sticking my toes in the ocean beats armchair daydreaming any day.
The same can be said of truth. No amount of cable news, internet sites or social media will get us there. To see it and believe it requires that we get up out of our recliners and discover the truth for ourselves.
I did that recently when I attended a presentation by Dave Schroeder, an expert in cybersecurity with the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He came to Prairie du Chien to talk about the threat to our democracy posed by disinformation campaigns launched by foreign actors, primarily Russian.
His appearance was sponsored by both the Republican and Democratic parties of Crawford County. In a world of hyper-partisan claims, if both parties recognize the threat, well, there must be something to it.
Cyberattacks, Schroeder said, gained prominence in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, when Russia used a combination of cyber and kinetic attacks that left Georgia in the dark – literally. Since then, Russia has engaged in “textbook disinformation” campaigns that have left Americans in the dark of political cyberwarfare.
According to Schroeder, Russia designs its cyber campaigns to “sow doubt about government, truth and each other,” while leveraging every possible racial, religious and cultural division to fuel partisan road rage along the highway to the next election. And they play both sides, equally espousing inflammatory rhetoric on either side of an issue.
Cyber attackers don’t have a point of view, only a point of attack – our vulnerability to disinformation about our adversaries – employing no more scruples than a telemarketer selling get-rich-quick schemes.
Foreign actors and political antagonists depend on our lazy love affair with an unchanging and stale truth, telling us what we already believe.
From his opening remarks, Schroeder stressed that cybersecurity is not a partisan issue.
Many associate election interference with the allegation of Trump campaign collusion with foreign entities in the 2016 election. Wherever you fall on that issue is immaterial to this issue. Experts agree that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to further its own goal of destabilizing our government.
“What can we do?” Schroeder asked his audience about our own responsibility in combating disinformation. We can start by vetting advertisements and information on the internet and social media. The source of the information is more important than the content, Schroeder said. If quotes and allegations cannot be independently attributed to real people, they are most likely the creations of foreign actors or domestic rabble-rousers with an agenda.
Finding objective truth in politics or life is not always possible. Ask 100 football fans about the facts behind a pass interference penalty on any given Sunday and you will begin to understand the problem.
Even subjective truth resonates when supported by facts. Despite the current trend of bashing professional journalists, traditional news outlets with editors looking over the shoulders of reporters and fact-checkers such as PolitiFact’s nonpartisan website can help us sort through the noise.
Democracy lives in the spaces between our opposing views where we can debate our differences without meddling from bad actors. This comes down to “a willingness to talk to each other,” Schroeder said. The act of talking face-to-face without rancor defuses anger and promotes empathy, and prevents either side from demonizing the other.
“We are the last line of defense,” Schroeder said.
The pursuit of truth lies in our hands alone. It’s time to get up and pay truth – and civility – a visit.
Eric Frydenlund is a columnist who lives in Prairie du Chien and writes about nature, politics and social issues from a systems perspective.
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