Journalists Argue Russian Interference Has Been Exaggerated
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
When it comes to the story of Russian election interference, you do hear this pretty clear, dominant narrative in much of the media.
(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Russian interference...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Operation was to sow discord in the U.S. political system...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A complicated meddling scheme...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: To destabilize the West...
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Trying to create chaos...
GREENE: Well, two writers, Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen of The New Yorker, are not totally buying this. They both know Russia really well. Gessen has been a longtime critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She fled Russia to escape persecution. Chen was one of the first journalists to write a definitive expose on Russian Internet trolls. Both writers have been growing increasingly skeptical about the true impact of Russia's election meddling. And we chatted about why they think the story is overblown.
MASHA GESSEN: I think that Russian meddling in the election is an important issue. At the same time, the simplistic narrative that basically imagines that a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls posting mostly static and sort of absurd advertising could have influenced American public opinion to such an extent that it fundamentally changed American politics is ridiculous on the face of it. And the fact that we're sort of falling deeper and deeper into that vision of the story is a little nuts.
GREENE: Well, Adrian, you actually reported on one part of the Russian machine. I mean, is what Masha's saying - is - do you see it that way as well, it's just mostly static and subliterate trolls, or is it more coordinated and something more serious?
ADRIAN CHEN: I mean, I think Masha put it perfectly. When I was reporting on it, you know, it was even probably more absurd and less polished than it became. But if you look at any of these ads, it's really just a kind of less literate and more simplistic version of what, you know, any right-wing Facebook page or alternative news outlet might put out. They were really jumping on these currents that were incredibly prevalent already on the Internet.
GREENE: Adrian, you said taking a position that it is at least somewhat skeptical about this narrative, that Russia meddled in the election and may have influenced the outcome - you've been reluctant to do interviews expressing that skepticism. Why is that?
CHEN: Well, I think for me, personally, it's difficult because I feel a lot of pressure on the one hand from interviewers and from people to kind of blow up the threat. You know, people want to talk about how scary this is, how sophisticated it is. There's not a lot of room for, you know, just kind of dampening down the issue. And then on the other hand, I'm wary of doing that because it instantly becomes a talking point among these sort of right-wing conspiracy mongers who basically just want to, you know, wage information warfare on behalf of the president. And so I don't want to be contributing to that either. So it's kind of a lose-lose situation.
GREENE: Masha, you have been, you know, an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin. You suffered personally under his regime. How uncomfortable is it for you to be raising doubts about, you know, an anti-Russian narrative right now?
GESSEN: Oh, there's rich discussion online about whether Putin has forced me to speak this way or whether he has bought me.
GESSEN: (Laughter) And for the record, neither.
GREENE: OK. But it's gotten to that level. I mean, people are wondering if Putin is - has basically brought you in to be his defender.
GESSEN: Yes, yes. I have - I have been widely now called a Putin shill.
GREENE: What should we think about Vladimir Putin and that regime? I mean, should we be less afraid than some people are?
GESSEN: I don't know that we should be less afraid. I think that we should be differently afraid. To be afraid of trolls to sort of imagine ourselves as sort of so infinitely pliable and malleable and subject to influence by a malevolent actor, I don't think that's doing our public sense of ourselves any good. At the same time, I think we should be awake to the fact that Putin believes and his circle believes that democracy is messy, flawed and ultimately not viable. And a lot of what they do is sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. They mess with the United States, and when messing with the United States seems to make the United States more messy, then that proves the point. It proves to the people of Russia that what they think of as stability is infinitely preferable to the unpredictability and peril of a democratic process.
CHEN: And I wanted to jump off of that. I think that the undue focus on these propaganda efforts with no real critical look at, you know, how effective they might be proves also to them the effectiveness of their efforts and kind of encourages more of this - you know, the managers of Russia today and the people who fund them are looking at the amount of press that they get in the U.S. as a kind of direct sign of their impact.
GESSEN: You know, my issue with it actually is that we're focusing on it too much, which, again, is not to say that the Mueller investigation isn't important. Of course, it's important, right? But there's a very large group of people who keep sort of focusing on it because they're convinced that it will lead to an impeachment, which I don't think is going to happen. Then there's an even larger, I think, group of people who engage in a sort of magical thinking that, like, at some point the Mueller investigation will explain away Trump, that it will say, OK, this is how our national nightmare came to be. And that's also not going to happen because the bottom line is that Americans elected Trump.
And then there's a smaller group of people who I think are watching it with the hope that it will turn out to be an elaborate hoax, as President Trump says, which is also not going to happen. But what concerns me most about it is that every time we talk about Mueller, we're not talking about something else. And there I think - there are a lot more things that are incredibly important about this administration and about this political moment that are not the Mueller investigation.
GREENE: Masha Gessen and Adrian Chen, thank you both so much. We really appreciate it.
CHEN: Thank you.
GESSEN: Thank you.
GREENE: They both write for The New Yorker, and they were talking about why they believe the story of Russian election interference has been overblown.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAMMAL HANDS' "STRAIGHT UP RAINING")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.