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Dueling Analogies.

As a kid, I was really good at standardized tests. (My father, a public school administrator, put little stock in test scores, but he did lament that my particular talent was of no value in the workplace.) The easiest questions for me were the analogies--knife is to slice as spoon is to stir, that sort of thing. In fact, they were so easy that I couldn't understand why we were wasting so much time on something so simple and obvious.

This is the flip side of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the psychological phenomenon in which people are too incompetent to recognize their incompetence. When something comes easy--math or music or art--it is often hard to appreciate how difficult it may be for someone else. Only since the advent of social media have I realized that analogies are really tricky for a lot of people--either because they can't see parallels or because they see parallels where they don't exist.

And that's a shame, because I find analogies to be exceptionally useful in understanding concepts and in explaining them.

I was taken, then, with two analogies used to describe the Russian infiltration of American social media during the 2016 presidential election. Both were used by David Kris, who formerly led the Department of Justice's National Security Division, in a special podcast by the Lawfare Institute after Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for their crimes against our country.

Totalitarian governments like Russia and China, Kris said, have discovered the American inability to differentiate between quality information and junk. They see "a fundamental weakness of our democracy, that our very proud marketplace of ideas is so easily flooded with counterfeit gray goods, and to the great detriment of our political discussions and our political systems."

Kris seemed to give grudging agreement to this hostile analysis: "I really think they think they've got their finger on a basic weakness of open societies and democracies, and they are going to press on this as hard as they can for as long as they can."

Pressing on a vulnerable spot is sort of an analogy too, but it's not the second one that captured my attention. Kris also suggested that the Russians were deliberately introducing a pathogen to sicken our society.

"Broadly speaking, we have developed a little bit of a virus here as an open democracy with free information flow," he said. "As part of that virus, we've got to develop a better immune system, culturally and maybe legally, to deal with it. And this indictment and the publicity around this indictment, the way we name and shame [the Russians defendants], may be part of a developing immune system to this sort of conduct."

In other words, just making Americans aware of how this pathogen is spread and what the symptoms look like could go a long way toward limiting its virulence. Or, using Kris' alternate analogy, Mueller could be making counterfeit information as easy to spot as knockoff fashions.

Of course, that assumes that enough Americans actually want an honest and transparent marketplace of ideas and a healthy body politic. And that's a mighty big assumption. Remember, there are a bunch of kooks out there who reject vaccines against actual viruses.

I suppose President Trump, the intended beneficiary of the Russian propaganda campaign, could be taking extraordinary measures to discourage or prevent future infiltration, but he's not doing it even as publicly as he has encouraged the anti-vaccine movement. He responded to the indictment of the Russian trolls with typical navel-gazing: The indictment didn't implicate him personally, so he treated as good news the detailed revelation of Russians using fake American identities and enlisting Americans in their crimes.

If he was at all concerned that the Russians might mistake his big win for their own success, he could enforce the sanctions on business with Russia that Congress approved in a stunning show of bipartisanship. But he hasn't. (Nor has he repented of his habit of tweeting stuff that is demonstrably false.) With approval of Trump among Republicans at 85-90 percent, it's entirely possible that a big chunk of America is as sanguine about the Russian attack as the president is.

If so, this virus will be fatal to our republic. Our marketplace of ideas will be as bankrupt as the Trump Taj Mahal.

Every day brings more material for a presentation on evaluating news sources that I have delivered to a half-dozen audiences. If your club or class would like to hear it, shoot me an email with some possible dates and I'll try to get you on my calendar.

Given Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.

GMoritz@ABPG.com

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Title Annotation:Editor's Note
Author:Moritz, Gwen
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Feb 26, 2018
Words:797
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