The word ‘unwitting’ is trending right now thanks to a set of indictments and reports from the Mueller investigation proving that Russians worked to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. Russian operatives apparently infiltrated the Trump campaign by engaging with unwitting aides. That word—unwitting—is the one the administration has embraced as proof they did nothing wrong. It isn’t proof of anything like that. A person who is unwitting lacks knowledge or intent or both, but ignorance is not necessarily an excuse nor a defense. And the blame doesn’t stop with any one group of people. Americans as a whole have proved ourselves to be unwitting.
Facebook is the most common media used to infiltrate and influence an unwitting America. We’re so enthralled by scrolling through our shiny news feeds and throwing shade at strangers that we fail to see when we’re being duped. We forwarded Russian propaganda and “liked” fictional news reports. We argued with friends and family members about the lesser of two evils, when the greatest threat was our own naiveté and ignorance. What sort of people will believe any foolish thing that shows up on a computer screen? An American sort of people, I guess.
We’ll probably never know for sure how much influence the Russians held over this last election. You cannot test a negative. It’s not possible to know what would have happened if the Russians hadn’t interfered. Maybe the outcome would be the same, but I don’t think so. We traded our democratic process and our critical thinking skills for the right to scroll mindlessly through social media. As a result, we’ve got a president who can’t stop sending his every thought and every insecurity into the Twittersphere.
I am a Democrat. Always have been. I’m socially liberal and, frankly, I don’t buy the argument that Republicans are better for the economy. I see no evidence to support it. But some of my favorite people in the world vote Republican. They think I’m a damn hippie or an idealistic fool. Politically, we are as divided as people can be. But pour a pitcher of beer and put on some Bon Jovi and you’ll believe we were all pressed from the same mold. And though we disagree about the way forward, we all want to live in a world where children are safe in their classrooms, where good jobs are plentiful, where drinking water is clean, where people can worship or not as they choose, and where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. We disagree politically, but there’s a lot of common ground between us.
That’s true of most Americans, I think. We’ve lost sight of how much we share, thanks to a culture of oversharing. When we only connect with other people in a medium so easily infiltrated by foreign bots and trolls, is there any connection at all? “Divided we fall” is more than one half of an overused slogan. We have divided ourselves so completely that we are easy pickings for anyone who hopes to sow chaos and mistrust among us. That we do so unwittingly is no real excuse.
We need to get our wits about us and come together to stop this sort of foreign interference in the future. We need to get smart and start questioning our sources. We need to listen more to each other and less to strangers spouting vitriol and lies. We’ll never agree on everything, but surely we can all agree that ignorance is not bliss.