Weekend Roundup: America’s Crisis Of Social Intelligence

Fake news and hacking highlight a troubled democratic discourse.

01/06/2017 07:11 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2017
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In a world where fact and fiction are increasingly overlapping, fake news and cybersecurity challenge Americans.

If the recent U.S. presidential election campaign was about defining American reality, little has been decided. The ongoing inability to arrive at a shared worldview or even to agree on basic facts, abetted by a media that thrives on adversity to monetize attention, is deadly for the discourse in any democracy.

This crisis of social intelligence in which the perception of reality is unmoored from objective observation is even more consequential than the highly damaging quarrel between the official U.S. intelligence agencies and President-elect Donald Trump over Russian influence meddling. But the two are linked.

None of the intelligence professionals I know would ever consider themselves infallible. Yet they do strive mightily to establish the facts and resist partisan pressures to slant their findings. Professional intelligence analysis seeks to root out false signals, disinformation, unfounded rumor and subjective opinion. It is, in effect, the opposite of peer-driven social media which now has the most influence over American hearts and minds including, apparently, over the incoming commander-in-chief.

While the joint report on the Russian hacks released last week by the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security was scored by some as less than conclusive, former NATO commander James Stavridis and cybersecurity expert Dave Weinstein believe it was highly effective. “Publicly laying this level of detail out sets a dramatic precedent that could serve a significant blow to Russia’s current and future cyberoperations in the U.S. and elsewhere,” they write. “The technical details of the report constitute an intelligence windfall for ordinary network defenders who have been starving for rich real-time threat information from the federal government to protect their systems against sophisticated actors.” A further report released Friday by U.S. intelligence agencies concludes that Russia aimed “to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency” and that “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Writing from Moscow, Maria Snegovaya reports that most commentators there have greeted President Barack Obama’s recently announced sanctions in response to Russian hacking with “mockery and derision.” Official Russia, she says, has offered the usual retort: deny then distort. 

If identifying and shutting down hackers has become a key task of intelligence agencies in these cyber times, the new challenge for education is to provide young people with the tools of social intelligence so they can tell fact from fabrication on social media. Stanford professor Sam Wineburg lays out the steps educators need to take to help students discern what is fake news or not. “The tools we’ve invented are handling us,“ he says, “not the other way around.” Teacher Lynn Kelley tells her students they fall victim to fake news when they lack the critical distance to be aware of their own biases and assumptions or when they are unable to evaluate claims without the relevant historical knowledge. Natalie Jackson reports on a poll that says most Americans think tweets are not the way a president should communicate. 

The scientific consensus on climate change is perhaps the most contested fact by the new powers to be in Washington. These stunning motion graphics compiled by James Warner illustrate the toll a warming climate took on the planet in 2016. Dominique Mosbergen reports that, indeed, 2016 was the hottest year on record. 

Nicolas Berggruen and I suggest how the incoming U.S. administration can promote renewable energy while creating jobs and security for Americans by jointly investing with China and Mexico in the infrastructure of a “solar border” instead of a wall. Guy Standing argues that a universal basic income would be a bulwark against far-right populism because it provides a secure economic base in people’s lives. “The response to these darkening times,” he writes, “must be to devise and rally support for a new income distribution system.”

In other global developments, yet another terror attack hit Istanbul on New Year’s Eve at a fashionable nightclub on the banks of the Bosphorus. Turkish journalist Ilgin Yorulmaz reports that, despite the aims of the terrorists, the responses to the attack are serving to unite a divided country. Mercy Corps’ Michael Bowers looks ahead to the humanitarian crises that should garner more attention in 2017 – in Yemen, South Sudan and Lake Chad. Ali Rodriguez reports that the economic situation has become so dire in Venezuela that even talented artists committed to the opposition can’t afford to stay and are fleeing.

Former Iranian National Security Council member Seyed Hossein Mousavian sees the potential for hope in the incoming U.S. administration. “While it might sound counterintuitive,” he writes, “Republican control of Congress and the presidency presents an opportunity for successful U.S.- Iran diplomacy. The U.S. government is now able to act in unison, enabling for novel approaches towards the region that may have previously been politically impossible.” In his piece, Mousavian also lists what he believes President-elect Donald Trump should know about Iran. One point is that America’s military presence in the Middle East has created instability there. Interestingly, while chaos gripping much of the Mideast is leading to disengagement by world powers, Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden explore why China is actually looking to invest more in the region.

In recent years, China was also always the poster child for the worst pollution in the world that came along with rapid growth. Now that China is trying to clean up its act, and India has joined the club of rapid growth, it is facing its own challenges. Bhargav Krishna writes from New Delhi that, “India’s under-funded public health system is straining to cope with the increasing burden of pollution-driven illnesses.”

Writing from Hong Kong Wang Xiangwei reports that President Xi Jinping, recently donned “a core leader,” denounced resistance to his reforms by local officials at a Politburo meeting this week after which his comments were splashed across national media. Former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei argues that, despite Brexit and the Trump election, globalization is not doomed; it is just shifting East with China in a leading position. Taking a comprehensive strategic view of world events, Zbigniew Brzezinski proposes that the only effective response to the present crisis of global power is trilateral cooperation among the U.S., China and Russia. He warns that, “The U.S. should not act towards China as if it were already an enemy; significantly, it should not favor India as America’s principal ally in Asia. This would almost guarantee a closer connection between China and Russia. Nothing is more dangerous to the U.S. than such a close connection.”

Our Singularity series this week looks at the technological developments to watch in 2017 – artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, decentralized peer-to-peer networks, biosynthetic labs and autonomous vehicles. Finally, our latest column by the Future of Life Institute reminds us that, in many ways, 2016 was a year of hope with advances in AI and health as well as new moves to reduce the global number of nuclear weapons.

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