Mueller probe bursts bubbles
As everyone has probably heard, a brief synopsis of the Mueller report was released this past Monday. The report itself is still classified, but the attorney general, William Barr, reviewed the report and released a summary which disturbed the political climate. The four-page document was hailed by supporters of President Trump as a complete exoneration of the president in terms of collusion and conspiracy. The summary quotes the actual Mueller report in this statement: “As the report states: ‘[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.’”
You might be asking what qualifies as Russia’s “election interference activities,” and the answer is twofold.
First, the campaign of disseminating misinformation which was waged by the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian “troll farm,” to increase polarization and cause national anger. Platforms like Facebook have become notorious for the quantity of verifiably false and inflammatory propaganda that rose to the surface during the election cycle. I’m sure we’ve all seen memes that portray Hillary Clinton as an evil, baby-eating demon. The Barr summary stated, “the Special Counsel did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired or knowingly coordinated with the IRA in its efforts.”
Second, the Russian government actively coordinated a computer hacking campaign which aimed to gather and release the personal emails of key Democrats. This is what gave us the Podesta emails. Again, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
At a now-famous campaign rally, Trump asked Russians to release the emails that were still not available to the public. He said, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Apparently, this does not constitute conspiring or coordinating, but it is easy to see how the narrative of collusion gained so much traction.
The report goes on to engage with the topic of obstruction of justice. Angry voices began calling for charges of obstruction when Trump fired Director of the FBI, James Comey. In regard to this, the Barr summary says, “Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and I have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel's investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.”
So there we have it: President Trump did not collude with Russia, and he did not commit obstruction of justice. Anyone who was betting on impeachment before 2020 is now looking at grim odds. I, for one, am happy that Trump didn’t commit treason, but not committing treason is really the lowest bar to get over for a president.
The narrative of Trump’s treason gained national prominence, especially among leftist, sensationalist news organizations which milked the story at every possible turn. The story of a compromised president excites readers and can be applied to almost every decision the president makes. Because of the constant reporting, compelling narrative, and extreme polarization, echo chambers supporting the story of treason formed quickly and captured a significant number of people. This system is stabilized and radicalized by a feedback process where increased membership means harsher moderation and the centrists slowly become indoctrinated or banned.
Getting opinions and news from an echo chamber is a very dangerous thing. Not only does it create the feeling of truth in false narratives, but it also creates cognitive dissonance by combining ideology with identity. Members of these circles do not listen to news or experts that promote conflicting narratives while supporting each other by creating a community of like-minded individuals. This is where the ideas become solidified into identity. No amount of logical argumentation can sway the whole community, a threat for democracy. Further, leaders of these communities gain power and reputation by being prominent members of the community. These leaders can never be swayed from their ideology because they would lose their positions in the community, all the while spreading their ideas. We all live in these bubbles. Carnegie Mellon is its own bubble, with its own feedbacks, promoting a worldview that benefits its members. Furthermore, we all have our own media consumption bubbles. Algorithms on YouTube, Netflix, and Google follow a bubble creating maxim, “If you liked that, you'll love this.” It's impossible and exhausting to try and see things from every possible perspective.
The revelation of Trump’s innocence shook the liberal world, especially on forum-style social media platforms like Reddit. Many people believed in the narrative of Trump’s treason because it fits their preconceived notions. Since methods of “liking” or “upvoting” on forums promote articles that the majority of members agree with, and because the majority of people only read headlines, powerful bubbles formed.
On Monday, the bubbles popped.
Now, the narratives have changed, the goalposts have been moved. A significant amount of people accepted the news, saying that it was always a fringe notion that nobody really fully believed. However, another large, dangerous portion is too invested in the narrative to change their ways. These folks have been beginning to spread ideas that look eerily like conspiracy theories.
A common one is that since Barr is a Trump appointee, he must have whitewashed the report and therefore Trump could have still committed treason. Another is a common narrative of the uselessness of self-investigation, stating that since the FBI is under the direction of the president, they would never admit to finding any incriminating evidence. Another is that this is all another disinformation campaign and that no source can be trusted to accurately report the facts. These retreats into conspiracy, skepticism, and paranoia are extremely dangerous for democracy and further exacerbate polarization.
Instead of these reactions, I suggest that we all take the time to reflect and evaluate our reactions to the news. If you were seriously convinced of Trump’s guilt, it is worthwhile to evaluate your news sources and internet communities. What kind of biases exist in your media consumption? Do you read articles that make you uncomfortable or angry? Do you disregard information and sources that don't conform to your preexisting ideas? Now is an amazing time for people on the left to evaluate their echo chambers. The film of the bubble is temporarily weak, and this is the time to push against the sides and see if you are where you want to be.