Once the world learned about the private email server Hillary Clinton had used as secretary of state, the government began to release the messages that had been turned over after her resignation (to some extent at Clinton’s request). Since these were messages involving a top Cabinet official, they needed to be screened to ensure that confidential information wasn’t revealed, necessitating a review process before the emails were released. That review process meant that the emails were released in chunks, a group of several thousands messages at a time dropped into the public domain.
At each release, the same pattern emerged. Journalists would dive into the emails, picking out interesting messages which may or may not have been the sorts of things that were useful for presidential voters to consider. Clinton didn’t know how to use a fax machine, and that became an article — in part due to the “celebrities are just like us” nature of some revelations, in part because unflattering news about Clinton had a guaranteed audience, and in part, no doubt, because the journalists had spent the time poking around on it. (The Post was hardly immune to this.)
The effect was broader than that, though. Each time there was a new batch of emails, the story was resuscitated in the public eye. But, more importantly, it seemed as though the story was expanding. It’s a bit like watching returns on election night: All the votes have already been cast, but it seems like there’s an exciting back-and-forth going on as the votes are counted.
Ultimately, there were emails uncovered which were classified, the nut of the critique of the use of the server. But the story metastasized well beyond that, thanks, in part, to how it was necessarily reported.
The same thing happened a year later, with different emails. When WikiLeaks started dropping files stolen from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, it didn’t do so in one big dump. Instead, the files trickled out. Particularly in the last month of the campaign, new Podesta emails came out on a near daily basis, and each time they were seized upon for any appearance of impropriety. This happened among conspiracy theorists, yes, but also among more mainstream critics of the Clinton campaign.
As a result, nearly every day saw revelations about the Clinton campaign — though not necessarily any that were informative or instructive. Often, in fact, they weren’t. Any story about “Clinton” and “email” was presumably often conflated into the broader story of “Clinton’s email server,” though the DNC and Podesta hacks had nothing to do with Clinton’s State Department role. The slow accretion of stories gave the impression of a slowly building scandal — which it wasn’t.
That effect almost certainly played a role in Clinton’s loss. The irony that ensued? Donald Trump’s tenure as president has endured a similar phenomenon.
Shortly after the election, we learned that the government believed both that the Russian government had stolen the messages released by WikiLeaks and, more broadly, that they’d done so as part of a concerted effort to get Trump elected. Since then, there have been a number of significant revelations about Russia’s role in promoting its interests during the campaign and how the Trump administration has responded to the investigations into that meddling. The Donald Trump Jr. meeting at Trump Tower. The Facebook ads quietly purchased by Russian agents. Those are significant developments in understanding what happened.
But there’s also been a slow accretion of news about the Trump investigation that, once you dig in a bit, doesn’t really tell us much about what happened. Articles that don’t particularly expand the story outward so much as layer more paint on the already-known core. We know that Russians leveraged online networks; does learning that the effort included Pokémon Go significantly change our understanding of the scope of what Russia did?
It’s not clear, for example, what the Daily Beast scoop about an email from the head of Cambridge Analytica to WikiLeaks’s Julian Assange actually tells us. It’s newsworthy, certainly, but it is not a smoking gun about a link between Russia and the Trump campaign. It’s, at best, a link between an agent of the campaign and an agent (allegedly/unwittingly or not) of Russian actors. The Wall Street Journal reports that the communication was an offer to help organize the emails being released which, if accurate, suggests an even less nefarious interaction than some may have assumed.
One factor here is the fracturing of the media landscape, which means that a lot more outlets are digging into the same stories and looking for fresh angles. Once those angles are identified, it’s hard not to seize on them as exclusive scoops, whether or not they’re terribly important revelations. Every outlet and journalist wants to plant a flag; this story has proven to be a good way to do that.
The result is that stories may be overhyped as important, just as happened with the Clinton emails and the WikiLeaks revelations. That builds a sense of growing scandal when what’s actually happening is the picture is being fleshed out. When you overlay that with an audience looking for a growing scandal — either from Clinton before the election or Trump after — that effect is magnified. And media outlets are rewarded for hyping things more than they ought to.
Again, none of this is to argue that there weren’t serious revelations uncovered and reported both before and after Election Day. It is, instead, to argue for more caution in evaluating the importance of a story you see on the Internet.
Which, at this point, is admittedly a bit like arguing that we ought to close the doors of barns built in 1832 so that long-dead farmers don’t lose their long-dead horses.