Media-Induced Mass Hysteria on Hacking

by LT. COLONEL JAMES G. ZUMWALT, USMC (RET) January 17, 2017

Concerning DNC hacking during the election campaign, President-elect Donald Trump said during a news conference Tuesday, "I think it was Russia." While Trump may have come to recognize he should not be undermining intelligence agencies upon which he will soon need depend, there still remain facets of this issue upon which we need reflect.

Even assuming Russian involvement - and absent supporting evidence - the ghost of actor Orson Welles appears to be haunting us, subjecting Hillary Clinton diehards to mass hysteria.

On Oct. 30, 1938, the radio broadcast "War of the Worlds" aired. Welles directed the drama about an alien invasion from outer space. Despite warnings it was fictional, many listeners thought otherwise. The program created mass hysteria, causing thousands to flee. The incident generated decades of research into what causes the phenomenon and the power of suggestion.

Sociologist Richard Bartholomew is one of those researchers. He defines mass hysteria as "an imagined or assumed threat that causes physical symptoms among a large number of people." He has explored more than three dozen cases of the condition occurring between the 17th and 21st centuries to determine causation.

Bartholomew says people can start experiencing real symptoms just from hearing things. Sometimes there is no real explanation why hysteria happens - it just does.

Since 1938, America probably has not borne witness to such mass hysteria caused by an invasion - until the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In its aftermath, the media have inundated us with endless claims of a "red scare" - Russian hackers having invaded our Internet and voting machines to influence the election's outcome.

It is almost as if the media creating the mass hysteria of a sinister Russian influence has fallen victim to its own creation. The Russians deny involvment and demand evidence of their alleged foul play, while the media and U.S. government agencies offering opinions offer little in the way of same. Additionally, a device called a "trace mechanism," capable of tracing emails back to their origin, suggests the Russian denial may be right. And Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said there is no evidence of "technical interference."

The media resort to publishing either gullible or fake news stories about Russian hacking. As one media critic points out, "The corporate media has all but accepted the resounding narrative that Russia hacked the U.S. election" but faults outlets like the Washington Post for "perpetuating these ... unconfirmed allegations ... (as) failing to practice due diligence."

With some of our government agencies, like the FBI, already on shaky ground due to its on-again, off-again, Clinton email investigation, one would have hoped they would get their act together before putting out statements concerning Russian involvement. Meanwhile, we either receive contrary statements or unsupported claims by federal agencies.

A sociologist seeking to create a tsunami of doubt about presidential election results - results surprising the world - could not have created a more effective means of feeding such doubt.

Admittedly, disclosing evidence without revealing intelligence sources and methods is not easy. But, if evidence exists and disclosure is the concern, it should be produced behind closed doors to members of Congress investigating the claims. Other than that, our intelligence and investigative agencies should remain silent.

As it now stands hysteria runs rampant over the possibility our voting system has been compromised. Most people, with time, will get over the possibility; however, there will always be those who will not.

The gullibility of the American public is frightening. After all, five years after 9/11, a Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll revealed, as conspiracy theories thrived, more than one-third of the public suspected U.S. government complicity in assisting the terrorists or taking no action to stop them to justify going to war in the Middle East.

Even if Russian hacking was involved, our spy agencies acknowledge they have no way of measuring the impact hacked emails had on voting choices. Also, as there is no indication the allegedly hacked DNC emails were altered, any voter impact occurring should turn more on questionable DNC behavior than on hacker behavior. In any event, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper admits the Russians "did not change any vote tallies."

While both the FBI and CIA issued a joint opinion Russian hacking occurred, what was not reportedwas the FBI has not even examined the DNC's hacked servers. A senior FBI official reports repeated requests to access the servers were rebuffed by the DNC.

While the debate continues over whether Russian hackers released emails to WikiLeaks or whether WikiLeaks received them from some other source, one truth remains self-evident: Neither Russia nor WikiLeaks is our friend. Regardless of the source, we need be concerned about our cybersecurity.

But the point also needs to be raised that, before the election, when Clinton's email scandal was evolving, cybersecurity seemed of no concern to the collective mindset of the DNC, which downplayed it before the election in order to focus on winning. Only after losing the election was the issue moved to a front burner. It should cause one to reflect on whether the focus now simply is a means of playing the mass hysteria card.

If so, and despite numerous Democratic Party initiatives to undermine election results - from efforts to convince electoral college members not to vote for Trump, to electors' demands before casting their votes they receive an intelligence briefing on possible Russian influence, to questioning fairness of the Electoral College itself - our system of government rejected them all.

The tragedy, however, is the lingering impact post-2016 presidential election mass hysteria will have. As with 9/11, confidence in our country again is undermined by conspiracists - this time for partisan political gain through mass hysteria. Those responsible will continue to haunt us with this ghost until the future when, once again, they next need the same system for their party's political gain.

A version of this piece also appeared on    

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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