Future Tense

Leave the Meddling to the Hardy Boys

Using the M-word to describe election interference makes it sound harmless.

A magnifying glass over Slate's "Russia election meddling" topic page.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Meddling. It sounds about as serious as stuffing a banana up the tailpipe of Chet’s jalopy. It’s a word you’d use to describe pledge-week drama or a suegra with boundary issues.

But Vladimir Putin is nobody’s mother-in-law, and he’s done more than just ruin Thanksgiving dinner. According to a March 16 FBI alert, manipulation of the U.S. electoral process is part of “a multi-stage intrusion campaign by Russian government cyber actors” to target critical infrastructure in the United States, such as energy plants, water treatment facilities, and transportation systems.

Pentagon security analysts consider such cyberterrorism a profound threat. The fallout could be literal: The New York Times reported in January that Pentagon officials have asked the White House to authorize retaliation with nuclear weapons, if necessary. Meanwhile, many news outlets (including Slate) continue to describe Russia’s disinformation campaign and sustained phishing and malware attacks as “meddling.” Jeepers, that’s right up there with throwing rotten eggs and cutting across Mr. Finley’s lawn.

Why have so many journalists glommed on to a word that puts the Russian hacking conspiracy on a par with The Sinister Signpost? It’s hard to say for sure. But Google Trends data, which measures relative interest in search terms over time, offers some intriguing clues.

Fever chart showing interest in meddling over time.
Screenshot via Google Trends

A Trends snapshot of news searches in the United States during the past three years shows that interest in the word meddling spiked from zero to 23 (of a possible 100) during the week of Oct. 9, 2016. Since that initial surge, interest has more than quadrupled.

So what happened in the Russia investigation that week? On Oct. 7, a joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned of “thefts and disclosures … intended to interfere with the US election process” and confirmed for the first time that Russia had authorized the breach.

Although the document itself didn’t use the word meddling, the New York Times did—twice—in its reporting on the statement. The paper quoted Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee: “I hope this [statement] will establish a deterrent to further meddling,” he said, “[and encourage] the administration to work with our European partners, who have been the subject of even worse meddling, to coordinate a response to this.”

This alarming New York Times story may have been a tipping point, but meddling had already gained some traction before Schiff’s remark was published. On July 27, 2016, for example, two days after the FBI announced it was investigating the case, the Washington Post ran the headline “Trump Invites Russia to Meddle in the U.S. Presidential Race With Clinton’s Emails.” And on Sept. 9, 2016, the word meddling appeared in the Congressional Record for the first time in this context when Rep. Maxine Waters noted that she was “stunned” by then-candidate Donald Trump’s assertion “that the Russians are not meddling in American presidential politics.”

Meddling may sound a bit milquetoast, but that’s precisely why it’s favored in diplomatic circles. According to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (an 11-pound, 2,600-page beauty I rescued from the scrap heap at my publishing job 20 years ago), the word comes from the Latin verb miscēre, meaning “to mix.” It has a long history as a bland, gentlemanly way of accusing a foreign government of unwelcome or inappropriate involvement in the affairs of a sovereign nation.

According to Paul Behrens, author of Diplomatic Interference and the Law, meddling can range from insensitivity to lobbying, bribery, propaganda, criticism, insults, threats, opposition funding, incitement of violence, or even coup attempts. To those of us who aren’t ambassadors or foreign ministers, however, the word’s subtext is more banana-peel hijinks than geopolitical hostility.

And each use of this pantywaist euphemism diminishes the gravity of Putin’s smug conquest. In his brilliant 1947 linguistic study of Third Reich propaganda, World War II diarist Viktor Klemperer notes the insidious power of repetition to shape our perspective: “[S]ingle words, idioms and sentence structures … [are] imposed on [the German people] in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously,” he says. “Language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.”

If the administration’s new “collusion is not a crime” angle catches on, it may be thanks in part to Americans’ dismissal of the Russian cyberoffensive as a mischievous scrape of the sort that Frank and Joe Hardy often find themselves in: “We’ll never get what we want if we don’t stop those meddling snoopers!” Dime detective-novel dialogue or WikiLeaks transcript? Who can tell truth from fiction anymore?

Reporting on the Russian infiltration of U.S. democratic institutions is a vital, honorable, complicated, no doubt thankless job. But our technologic adversaries—especially Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea—are “poised for aggression.” The words we use to characterize their cynical statecraft, then, must pack some heat. Call it hacking, subversion, infiltration, or cyberassault—heck, even the meh words interference and influence carry a bit more weight than meddling.

Or how about sabotage? Say, there’s a word Frank and Joe would’ve liked. It’d be swell if we could just get those cats in the newsroom to use it.