Notes to Pundits of the Trump-Russia Stories: If you were my students …

Sorry if this sounds patronizing, as you are stellar journalists and politicians, but if you were my students, writing a paper for a college class, what would I say?

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teaching commons.stanford.edu

I would definitely give you points for effort, and creativity, but would mark your work down on its analytical precision. Happy for you to come in during an office hour, but briefly, let me give you a few examples of my concerns. Apologies in advance for these quick notes.

First, take your vague attributions, which change over time. Who is responsible for meddling with the 2016 US Presidential election? Is it hackers in Russia, Russian oligarchs, Russian nationals, Russians, government hackers, agent’s of the government, the government, the highest levels of government, or President Putin? Your essays keep veering across these various actors. You must see that it makes a difference, so you must be more precise to be credible.

Likewise, what did they do – what was the meddling? Did they hack into email of the DNC, RNC, John Podesta, or others; gain access to county voter registration files; change voter registration files; meet with members of the campaign; loan money (at some point in the past) to members of the campaign; compromise members of the campaign; pass material to WikiLeaks, or one or more of the above? Your discussions keep shifting from one to another accusation as if this were a shell game.

When did this happen? Was it during the 2016 elections, happening now, or is it something that is likely to happen in the future? When you sometimes veer toward the future, it undermines your case.

Where is the evidence? Is it simply based on authority, the intelligence agencies, all of whom happen to agree, even when they seldom or ever confirm or deny anything? Is there evidence beyond hearsay? [By the way, you should not equate the heads of intelligence agencies with scientists, or doubts over Russian interference with climate change denial, as the analogy so flawed that it further undermines your credibility.]

Finally, in line with a major problem with undergraduate writing today, is it something that you often just feel is right? As you would have heard me say in class time and again, your feelings don’t count.

So you can see that given all the possible permutations of who did what, when and where, and all without strong evidence, the essays end up in an analytical muddle. You’ve constructed a wicked problem out of a set of vague accusations that are not critically assessed.

This would be funny if your work did not have such serious consequences. [I should add you do get high marks for impact.] And the impact will last decades and shape governmental institutions in the US in major ways, such as with respect to the role of Congress in foreign policy.

Finally, it would have been good to focus on some things that could be done to avoid the risks you identify, such as shoring up cyber security in all aspects of campaigns and elections, and not moving to electronic voting – a plea that has been made for well over a decade. [See Barbara Simons’ work, for example, who has been warning people about the difficulties of securing electronic voting systems for decades.] You might also reinforce the wisdom of how decentralized voting systems are in the US, meaning that there is no one system, even in a single state, and the need to keep it that way.

That said, great effort, well written, and convincingly spoken, but I regret to say that I cannot give you high marks on your work. And apologies for not addressing every individual journalist and politician talking about the Trump-Russia story, as that would not be possible given the number of you that chose this topic. Nevertheless, as a group, try to focus on developing a more analytically rigorous argument, and ensure that your evidence drives your conclusions rather than the opposite.

 

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