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Television

Commentary: Four years ago, the presidential election launched a cyberwar. We’re still losing

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Harri Hursti in the upcoming HBO documentary “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections.”
(Carin Van Donk/WarnerMedia)

Election 2020. Nothing is certain save for Russian cyber meddling, the targeted spread of misinformation, loss of confidence in the system — and more damn debates than should ever be allowed outside a high-school debate club.

It’s barely Super Tuesday, and the campaign for the White House feels like it’s been on the air longer than “The Simpsons.” It’s permeated pop culture with the obnoxious ferocity of 1980s-era Bart, and has continued to spread like Homer sprawled out for a nap on the couch, thanks largely to the media-tailored antics of another agitator (this one real) with brightly colored hair.

The last bastion of non-politicized programming, network TV, has become a regular font of political satire with clear points of view. Where would Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers be without the absurdity of this year’s never-ending election, a race that started back in 2016?

Sitcoms are changing the way they do things to keep up. “The Conners” aired live while the New Hampshire primary returns came in, so the cast could crack jokes about the importance of voting for a “really terrible” candidate in order to ensure that a “really, really terrible” candidate doesn’t come into power.

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Soon to be streaming is Hulu’s bright new docuseries, “Hillary,” starring Hillary Clinton, as herself! It revisits the ways multiple forces undermined the 2016 election, torpedoing confidence in the democratic system, not to mention her White House aspirations. A skip and tumble down memory lane.

Hillary Clinton is more unvarnished than ever in “Hillary,” a new docuseries from director Nanette Burstein premiering March 6 on Hulu.

“The Conners”
“The Conners” joined the long list of TV shows trying to stay on top of politics with a live episode built around the New Hampshire primary results.
(Eric McCandless / ABC)

More documentary premieres in March focus on how far we have not come since then. They provide a sobering look at what plagued us in 2016, and show how cyberattacks, hacking and foreign election tampering have exploded since then in scope and intensity.

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Niall Ferguson’s “Networld,” a three-part PBS docuseries that premieres March 17, explores the viral spread of information through the intersection of social media, technology and cultural movements.

HBO’s “After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News” (March 19) looks at “the impact that disinformation, conspiracy theories and false news stories have on the average citizen.” Directed by Andrew Rossi and executive produced by Brian Stelter, it dissects several high-profile, fabricated “news” stories, including the infamous “Pizzagate” case, and how they may have influenced the 2016 presidential election.

And the chilling exposé “Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections” (March 26) follows Harri Hursti, a renowned Finnish hacker turned election expert, taking a deep dive into how Russians breached voting machines, purged voters from lists, crippled polling places and hacked government systems to influence and change the outcome of various elections.

The kicker: Many of the vulnerable voting machines are still in use today.

Pop culture isn’t just reacting to the changing tone of our democratic process. Banal forms of entertainment are being weaponized to support various parties, or causes, or to sow divisions and destabilize the process.

Take the most benign pop culture moment — the awards show telecast. It almost always comes replete with a slurred acceptance speech (or three) in which the winner uses the opportunity to promote a cause, rebuke war or criticize policy, in between the usual list of teary thank-yous.

January’s Golden Globes telecast was no different.

Five-time host Ricky Gervais delivered his typical roast of Hollywood during his opening monologue. The usually brilliant and eviscerating British comedian, by his own account, was phoning it in. “I don’t care,” he said repeatedly.

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As I noted in my review, he was telling the truth. He didn’t give a toss. He even looked bored as he skewered the self-importance of the entertainment industry and lampooned the excesses of celebrity culture. (He also made fun of Martin Scorsese’s height and jailbird Felicity Huffman.) And he told the assembled stars to cut political commentary from their acceptance speeches because they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. So basically, not much of anything new.

The response to my criticism of Gervais, however, did stand out. Aside from real folks who stated their support of the host, and their (ahem) displeasure with my take on his performance, my social media following jumped by the hundreds in a matter of hours, thanks largely to sockpuppet accounts (deceptive and faux online identities), some of which had only posted a scant few times since 2016.

Host Ricky Gervais told Sunday night’s Golden Globes winners to stay away from politics. It fell on deaf ears — and the telecast fell flat in the process.

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Ricky Gervais hosts the 77th Golden Globe Awards in January.
(Paul Drinkwater / NBC)

They too railed about the Hollywood elite — I agree, celebs are notably infuriating, especially when they look 29 at the age of 50 — but then they made a fresh connection Gervais had not. They promoted the right and Trump. It was a stretch, given that there was nothing overtly political about the host’s routine, despite that week’s barrage of impeachment bombshells and the potential of entering World War III with Iran, or my review.

Yet an echo chamber was created around the piece, and soon enemy lines were drawn. Though actual humans were compelled to join the conversation, it was at a lesser rate than the troll accounts. (Perhaps we are less susceptible to tribal mindsets than we are often told.) But the deluge ultimately made it impossible to deconstruct the experience in real time: Practically overnight, in the hothouse atmosphere of our political and technological ecosystem, an event that was not explicitly partisan suddenly became so.

The Atlantic recently wrote of similar types of “conversations” driven by chatbots, “About a fifth of all tweets about the 2016 presidential election were published by bots, according to one estimate, as were about a third of all tweets about that year’s Brexit vote… These tended to be simple programs mindlessly repeating slogans.”

Analysis showed the outcome of these smaller campaigns didn’t likely sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election but likely did “distort people’s sense of public sentiment and their faith in reasoned political debate,” the Atlantic continued. The upshot: We are all in the middle of “a novel social experiment.” Which means anything that whips up heated dialogue is game. Even a boring awards ceremony.

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Just imagine what Super Tuesday will bring, or the general election.


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