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House of Cards: Show or Intel?

By ANA MEJIA

The Russians played a role in the past American electoral campaign; this much, we know. Even Congress has confirmed it. Strange news emerged this week (via CNN, Telegraph, The Hill, and more) that the hundreds of internet trolls that worked to slander Hillary Clinton’s name online had to spend hours watching House of Cards to learn about American politics.

Journalist Michael Isikoff confirmed this in an interview with one of the aforementioned trolls who worked at an election-meddling factory complex in St. Petersburg, Russia. In an interview published by the independent Russian network Rain, a former employee described their operation.

The former employee, known as Maksim, said that the employees in the troll factory made comments on popular websites such as Facebook with the intention of influencing American citizens. The messages were against Hillary Clinton and they mentioned her family’s past and the email scandal. They also commented on gun ownership and LGBTQ related topics but they could not mention Russia or Putin and had to use Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to hide their origin.

Maksim explained that in order to better understand the American political environment, the workers had to watch House of Cards to comment more realistically online. House of Cards is a Netflix series that follows the life of South Carolina congressman Frank Underwood (portrayed by Kevin Spacey) and his wife, Claire Underwood (portrayed by Robin Wright).

The sole point of the trolls watching House of Cards was to learn how politics work and how to better write in social media as if they were Americans. That begs the question, how accurately does television portray the current political reality? The TV series shows the ways Frank Underwood, as Majority Whip, uses his influence to advance his political career, by publishing damaging news stories, backstabbing fellow party members and even killing journalists and peers. I have only watched three seasons of House of Cards. It is a well-made show, full of twists and turns that keep you hooked. As a viewer, I many times wondered “Is this how the system works?” “Is this what you need to survive working at The Hill?”

Media and TV shows hold a great influence on how a country is portrayed. As a Colombia native, I know this firsthand. Every time people ask me where I am from and I answer Colombia, I am immediately prompted with a question regarding Pablo Escobar. I know for a fact that those shows are not what my country is like, and that makes me wonder what people think when they watch House of Cards. How is accurate House of Cards? That is beyond me. It must be pretty accurate if the Russians used it to understand the U.S. political environment, launch an anti-Clinton campaign and walk out victorious.

The Russians using House of Cards to learn about American politics does not say as much about America as it does about society as a whole. Every day it becomes more and more common for us to take what we see on TV or online as factual. While I am not saying that the show is not factual, I cannot say that it is either. Politics is a game of power, just like the show portrays. However, it seems more targeted at keeping viewers engaged than it is about the daily life of people in Washington D.C.

Ana Mejia can be reached at ana.mejia@spartans.ut.edu

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