Hacked and misinformed: America’s new civil war

PHOTO: Jonathan Rolande, Flickr CC

PHOTO: Jonathan Rolande, Flickr CC, (https://housebuyfast.co.uk/)

Scholars mark history by turning points. We’ve reached another one. Everything after will be different.

In my conversations with friends and family, in my experience with social media, and in my best effort to understand people with many different opinions, I have reached a troubling conclusion.

Most Americans will cast their ballot on Tuesday believing things that aren’t true.

For instance, this trope: “Hillary Clinton is the most dishonest candidate in U.S. history.” This is objectively false. Analysis of Clinton’s statements show her to be among the most honest candidates to run in 2016, more than any other candidate of either party this year. Sure, she can exaggerate and fib like any politician, but less than average and no more than anyone else in her position.

That doesn’t mean that you need to agree with her. Or like her. Or vote for her. But most people’s attitudes about Clinton are refracted through the lens of widely disseminated falsehoods. Her actual negatives, for instance her admitted mistake in keeping a private email server at the State Department, become blown ridiculously far out of proportion. Even a hostile FBI Director, who single-handedly rescued Trump from a landslide defeat, has once again been forced to acknowledge lack of evidence of any criminal intent in Clinton’s e-mails.

The irony is that her opponent, Donald Trump, actually is the most dishonest candidate in recent history. The Toronto Star compiled a list 500 notable Trump lies. One lie about President Obama’s interaction with a protestor yesterday was so easily refuted that it almost seemed like Trump sought, point by point, to win a lying contest.

Trump’s speeches, debate performances, and press conferences were full of so many verifiable lies that one simply lacks time in the day to debunk all of them. It reminds me of when I tried to enter each one of my baseball cards into a database on my family’s first PC back in the 1990s. After several hundred cards, the task grew in futility. Why did it even matter? Each new pack of cards only dissuaded me further.

And yet Clinton’s “trustworthiness” is one of the main factors cited by those not voting for her.

If you listen to the campaign, you might believe that America’s economy is in a free fall. Truth: While certain employment indicators have been stagnant and growth has been slower than some would like, unemployment is historically low and the stock market is historically high. Compared to other parts of the world, our economy is robust. The average quality of life for Americans has never been better.

Two factors influence attitudes about the economy. First, the rest of the world is catching up, which frightens some. Second, Donald Trump and Republicans tell everyone that we’re in some version of a Depression.

There are serious problems baked into America’s economy — automation, low wages, and a failure to recognize the service sector jobs most Americans actually do. Health care premium increases are a real problem. Inequality and deindustrialization punish some while others thrive. While Clinton may only minimally address these issues, Trump has no stated plan whatsoever — other than to repeal and oppose anything done by President Obama.

The War against Disinformation

Though we live in the so-called Information Age, it’s an honest struggle to remain well informed. No single sources are universally trusted. Formerly trusted mainstream media sources contort themselves trying to gain new consumers. Some sources are implicitly biased, forcing their consumers to either accept biased information as true, or triangulate the truth from some combination of other flawed sources. (I watched FoxNews and MSNBC, so the truth must be in between?) None of this makes the work of informed democracy easy.

A list of countries from which attacks on MinnesotaBrown.com were blocked in the last week.

List of countries from which attacks on MinnesotaBrown.com were blocked last week.

Further, and most troubling of all, external forces hold the active goal of misinforming the American public, acclimating us to falsehoods not only to influence our elections, but our everyday attitudes and habits. If we distrust our elected officials and government in general, we will never support any organized effort to check the power of America’s rivals. Our real rivals. Not the ones in caves, but the ones with money.

Most notably, we see Russia — both formally and informally — hacking and misinforming the American public through online propaganda. Vladimir Putin has reasons to do so. Not all Russian hacks are KGB dark ops, though the Wikileaks hacks of the Clinton campaign certainly were. Some can be explained by some version of hacking privateers, independent operators who find ways to profit off dissemination of false information and temporarily commandeering sites on the internet.

Case in point, this blog. I’m a small, relatively insignificant blogger in the far northern reaches of a Midwestern state. Nevertheless, I track hacking attempts. By 10-1 those attempts come from Russia. I’m talking dozens of attacks each day. No, I don’t think it’s the KGB, but this is the new threat facing America’s media and political institution. And, for what it’s worth, my blog was successfully knocked out twice this fall alone, despite many defenses. You don’t need to bomb the newspapers and radio stations if you can silence them from across an ocean.

We are the enemies and the allies

It’s not just Russia, though. We see a cottage industry of social media memes spreading through our lives with almost no objective consideration of their truth. Unknown forces are exploiting America’s willingness to share how they feel without thinking about what is actually true. They profit from this. Think about these things. If you don’t know where it comes from, you’re feeding the pyramid scheme.

Let me make it clear, I cannot stomach the idea of a Trump presidency, though I recognize that it could happen. But it’s not Trump that disturbs me as much as the people I know. These people I know and respect, even love, have come to espouse monstrous philosophies of racial resentment, wars of cultural extermination, and contempt for the poor. Trump is a predictable blowhard narcissist, the tip of a nationalist spear. But my friends and neighbors supporting him? They drive that spear.

I used to believe some of the negative things about Hillary Clinton that many Americans still do. I went through a very conscious journey of unpacking my own opinions about Clinton, and where they came from. I have determined that she is conclusively the most qualified candidate for President in 2016. Meanwhile, my children have been watching the news and, without prompting, have come to see Trump as a bully. He is a bully. And his treatment of women and subordinates over his lifetime is, to me, disqualifying.

I know I’ve just angered some of you. We live in a culture of “us vs. them” created to divide us. As disturbed as you may be, I am as intractable from your universe as you are from mine. How will we move forward together?

That’s actually hard to say. In 2016, nightly TV newscasts dedicated virtually no time to explaining policy differences between Trump and Clinton, focusing almost exclusively on horserace stories like polls, controversies and the dueling predictions of talking heads.

People who identify with one general philosophy and marketing campaign find themselves disliking those who identify with the other. It’s the difference between buying a “kid peeing on the Ford logo” bumper sticker, or a “kid peeing on the Chevy logo” bumper sticker. But what *is* the difference between a Ford and a Chevy?

The meme. The bumper sticker. These lack the substance needed to run a representative democracy in the 21st Century, where threats and opportunities are complicated.

Truth will out

The saying goes, “Truth will out.”

Some truths: Our election system is fair and will welcome your vote. We each get one vote. On Wednesday, God willing, we’ll have a new president-elect. We’ll know more about this country then.

No matter the result, let us seek and forever cherish the truth.


  1. A voice of reason once again. Thank you Mr. Brown.

  2. I generally like reading your column, as I spent many years in Northern Minnesota, however I have to say I completely disagree with you on this one.
    Is Trump crass, absolutely, is he the only one who talks that way ?? Heck no ! Is the Trump campaign being supported by any of this countries enemies ??
    Is the media and the ENTIRE political scene corrupt ??
    My point is that while Trump may be many things,
    I know he is an American that loves his country, I believe that has the balls to make America Great again .

    • You’re entitled to your opinion, Misti, but other politicians do not talk this way. No one I want to affiliate with talks the way he does. I fail to understand what “Make America Great Again” even means, because he has not articulated much more than a plan to build a wall and cut taxes.

  3. David Gray says

    Sorry, I have to much experience in handling classified information to accept that description of Clinton’s felonies. But it is the picture that she wants to paint and clearly she has had some effect.

    • No charges, David. If it was as bad as you describe, there would certainly be charges. Who in the FBI would be protecting her? If Justice was trying to interfere, that would be leaked to GOP in the House and there’d be impeachment hearings. Believe me, they’d love all of that. And yet, it hasn’t happened.

  4. David Gray says

    And if you want to hear the FBI Director make clear that Clinton has been lying on a massive scale I’d refer you to this clip.


    • An inappropriate comment from an FBI director either playing his own political games or trying to survive atop an FBI full of GOP-friendly operatives willing to leak against Clinton. Listen, the e-mail server was a bad idea. But it wasn’t an unthinkable idea in the context of what had been done before. With 24 hours to go, I’m just tired of letting people espouse political opinion as proof of something. If they had charges, believe me, they would have filed them.

  5. Well, of course, Donald Trump who has a long history of illicit deals , stiffing businesses and employees refusals to reveal his tax forms , is a racist in every sense of the word , a name -caller of the first order,and a truly vile and dangerous person is a Great American. The beat goes on and on . His poison has infected the body politic of America to an extent I have never witnessed in all my years, and they are considerable. Even more alarming than the man himself are the numbers of people who have bought into his lunacy and hatred.
    I fear for our country as I never have before if this completely unqualified, divisive demagogue becomes POTUS.

    • Let me clarify for you Jackie….

      Obama has weakened America to levels we haven’t seen before. If Hillary is elected, we can expect to become even more diminished as a society, as a country.

      If we wish to regain what we lost over the past decade, what made America THE greatest nation in the history of mankind….faith in God, prayer, love of country, family, a belief in American exceptionalism, capitalism, Judeo-Christian values, the Constitution, limited government, personal responsibility, economic freedom, the military and police….vote for Trump.

      It’s that simple..

  6. Soon the election will be over and Clinton will likely be president. And Trump will likely go back to The Apprentice. And we, the people, have to start paying attention to real issues like climate change and the loss of the middle class. Simple solutions aren’t going to get us there no matter how many simple solutions get passed around facebook. It’s time to start using social media to create an inclusive sense of community to hammer out solutions. And, in the mean time, I need a beer or two to try to forget this ugly election.

  7. Independant says

    The top 3 real issues are:
    1. Jobs
    2. Jobs
    3. Jobs

    • There are help wanted signs all over my town, the mi iPhonefactory I have worked for for fourteen years hasn’t been fully staffed for at least a couple years, people are working overtime to cover the missing workers and that gets exhausting. I’ve heard it’s that way over lots of the surrounding area. Housing is more of a limiting factor in my town. I’m convinced if you really are willing to work you could probably find a job. Now money on the other hand that’s hard to come by.

  8. First, I fully realize that this is your blog, your opinions, and it is your prerogative to lead the discussion in whichever direction you want. I get that. But I do find it less than amusing that you, both here and on FB suggest that the FBI when it agrees with your position is some kind of gold standard, hence they have chosen not to charge Hillary with a crime. Yet when that same FBI Director is questioned under oath about Hillary’s lies, and his comments do not support Hillary, you describe his answers as “inappropriate comment from an FBI director either playing his own political games…”

    It is not the mere existence of a private server that is bothersome, but the lies and deletion of materials. Even when turning over all her emails (also a lie) she had them printed rather than sent electronically. An electronic transfer would have allowed more accurate and timely “key-word seaches. We now know that Hillary had her maid, a woman with no security clearance printing and distributing classified documents. This is clearing in violation of 18 US Code 798. Yet, as long as she hasn’t been charged this is okay with you?

    You called Trump the most dishonest candidate in history, a claim you cannot support. Because a paper documented his lies, while ignoring the potential lies of others, does not make it accurate. I will vote for Trump while holding my nose and maybe even vomiting in my mouth, (At least I admit that) but I truly worry about people who will vote for Hillary because she hasn’t been formally charged. It will be interesting if the first woman president (if elected) will also be the first president to pardon herself. Thankfully, the ability to pardon is not allowed in cases of impeachment, which provided the GOP retains control of Congress is an almost certainty in this old man’s opinion.

    Mark Twain said, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” As you have somewhat of a bully-pulpit I’ll quit here.

  9. Maggie Montgomery says

    I too am tired of intentionally biased media and the “echo chamber” of social media that feeds me what it thinks i want to see. This is an important issue for our democracy–on any political side. Yellow/slanted journalism has a long history in our country, but I’m not sure it was ever reinforced to the extent that it is now, in the internet age. Thanks for the post!

  10. According to a McClatchy-Marist poll released just last Friday, a majority of the electorate believes Clinton has done “something illegal.” That should be reassuring as it relates to the wisdom of the voters. Sadly, it isn’t. The survey also shows Clinton leading Donald Trump 46-44.

    And it gets worse. When asked if the various legal controversies that swirl around Clinton with ever-increasing velocity would make a difference in the way they vote tomorrow, fully 65 percent of Democrats answered “no difference at all.” Is this an artifact of the “Gruber Principle”?

    For those who may have forgotten, this is a reference to the incredibly disingenuous Democrat strategy that was used to pass Obamacare. It will forever be associated with MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber, who described it on video as follows: “The stupidity of the American voter was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”

    This is precisely what Hillary Clinton is hoping to get away with tomorrow.

  11. It’s probably not surprising that much of the Republican base has rebelled against establishment Republican legislators and has flocked to Trump. Establishment GOP has promised to repeal this and repeal that for decades but hasn’t delivered what they want. Their base doesn’t believe them anymore. Trump makes a lot of promises but has no real policy plans to deliver. Even conservative analysts studying his threadbare plans say they are not viable, realistic and are unworkable. Trump only says, “Believe me” and his supporters cheer wildly, questioning nothing. Ask Trump supporters how Trump is going to accomplish what he promises and they can’t explain how he would either. It seems to me that they dumped GOP’ers who they feel have misled them and eagerly pivoted to a serial liar whose whole adult life has been a con game. Fool me once….
    It’s been astonishing to watch Republicans, particularly those who still plan to support and vote for Trump, reveal that so many of their lifelong conservative values became subject to interpretation, broken and give Trump a free pass. Trump has broken at least nine of the ten commandments, cheats in business, cheats charities, is thrice married, a sexual predator, lives only to feed his ego and has no respect for anyone, including his supporters. Can Trump supporters honestly say they hope their children and grandchildren will grow up to be just like Trump?
    Markets and investors are nervous about Trump, European nations are nervous about Trump with good reason. He doesn’t know the most basic things about world affairs and doesn’t think it’s important to learn. Trump didn’t know what the Brexit vote was as it was about to happen, didn’t know what the nuclear triad is and probably still doesn’t. (Different issue but he didn’t even know what the Gold Star families are.) He has praised dictators and has troubling ties with Russian business and money. He has been called Russia’s useful idiot. A couple of days ago, his campaign staff finally got him away from his twitter feed. Words matter here and abroad and his mouth is a loose cannon. Dangerous.
    Maybe some Trump fans actually believe his lies and he will magically fulfill their fantasies. I think many know he is lying about practically everything but simply don’t care. They want a “change” but don’t seem to spend any thought to what a Trump presidency would be like or affect them in reality. Some just want government to explode and collapse. What in the world do they think the aftermath would be like for them and every other American? Do they think chaos would leave them alone? None of these “reasons’ to vote for Trump make any rational sense.

  12. Ah yes, Hillary (and Bill) have been so immensely powerful and connected that no one or group has been able to put them behind bars for something. Over a couple of decades plus, tens of millions of dollars have been spent by many groups working diligently trying to do just that from anything financial to drug running to the “Clinton body bags.” There has been a lot of legal brains on the job with billionaire funding but even with all that, they haven’t succeeded. Are they just not that good at this? Not with all those resources. People like to pretend that the Clintons have been able to escape jail time because they have such vast power and so many influential buddies covering up crimes. If Hillary and Bill had that much power, the email thing or murder wouldn’t have even been in the “news”.

    • A majority of the electorate believes Clinton has done “something illegal”, yet 65% of Democrats think that’s ok, not a problem. Thinking like that is “stupid”, and not what made America great.

  13. Ranger, now why do you think that many people believe, not know for a fact, believe that Clinton has done something illegal? They have heard or read “news”/infotainment but have they read verified facts? Not opinion or the typical msm “he said, she said” nonsense which has no relationship with actual investigative journalism that focuses on the facts. Thanks to the sad state of msm, too many people can’t tell the difference anymore. I know I’m not satisfied with listening to msm pundits drone on and on with their predictable boring “both sides” opinions. I want to know what really happened, not speculation, but I’m weird that way.

    • Kissa…
      Humans have good inherent instinct and intuition. Earlier this summer a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed 69% of the people believe O.J. murdered his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. The facts said otherwise. 7% believe he didn’t. You must be one of the 7%.

      Electing a known evil person such as Clinton is cutting off your nose to spite your face. It happens, but it’s stupid.

  14. David Willard says

    Cites politifact. Lost me. Proven to be way biased. Aaron is just surgery knee jerk leftie from the range. I grew up with them.

  15. David Willard says

    *Another knee jerk liberal. Though the other is funnier. Something your column needs. Yes, I’ll quit reading it. Don’t worry.

  16. Ranger, bless your heart. Intuition/gut instincts are fraught with error, not facts, as you should know by now

  17. At one time, I thought ranger had some functioning brain cells,even though we were on opposite ends of the political spectrum. However, as time has passed, he continues to demonstrate I mistakenly gave him way more credit than he was due. The sheer and utter nonsense he has spewed on this post supporting Donald Trump is truly beyond the pale. Bless his little heart, indeed…

  18. David Gray says

    Nobody who is voting for Hillary Clinton is in any position, whatsoever, to criticize someone for voting for Trump.

  19. Bless your little heart , too, David .

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.