The intelligence community released its report Friday about Russian meddling in the 2016 election. For people who follow Russia and social media propaganda, most of this information wasn’t new. What was new was the intelligence community connecting the dots publicly.
It underscored the important lesson we all know but often forget: Not everyone on the internet is real.
It’s important we talk about “troll armies” or groups of paid trolls with multiple social media accounts who post similar messaging hoping to influence the debate online. By posting similar content and acting in large groups, they can mess with the social media algorithms and make a topic seem more popular than it is. By acting individually, they can make individual social media users feel harassed and attacked.
One part of the report refers to an expert in Russian troll armies. That unnamed expert is Adrian Chen.
I think his piece “The Agency” in The New York Times Magazine should be required reading for all Americans because it gives you a whole new perspective on your social media interactions.
Chen went to St. Petersburg, Russia, to investigate claims that Russia’s government was paying people to pose as Americans online to comment on news stories, Twitter conversations and Facebook conversations. These paid trolls had multiple accounts and sought to basically pick fights and destroy discourse. It’s a long read, but I promise you’ll be rewarded because it reads like a novel and you won’t see the end coming. So, grab a cup of coffee and settle in.
Chen wrote this in 2015, but later in the election cycle he noticed the troll army accounts had changed headshot photos to frogs and were posting pro-Donald Trump rhetoric. The report from the intelligence community also suggested that the troll armies were preparing the hashtag #democracyRIP in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton win.
To lighten the mood after this, I’ll point you to Samantha Bee, whose comedy show traveled to Moscow to interview trolls. (It’s hilarious, but take note: There is strong language in here, so beware if you’re watching with kiddos around or are offended by such language.)
To be honest, we Midwesterners should have caught these trolls. I mean, what Nebraska woman do you know who talks like that? We’re way too passive-aggressive and anti-confrontation for that. Hot-take tweets in the Midwest are more like “Bless your heart. Are you SURE you want to post that?” (DAMN, FIRE.)
The combination of troll armies, disinformation, fake news and bots (accounts programmed to retweet or reply with a specific topic or set of key words) underscore that we need to be very careful about what we share on the internet. In this instance, we’re talking about Russia. However, we could easily be talking about anyone who wants to push their agenda: ISIS, other foreign countries, businesses, even political parties hoping to change the debate.
So what do we do? Here’s what Adrian Chen posted on Friday:
I keep thinking the best way is by being the polite, kind, engaged Midwesterners we’ve always been, keeping clear heads, not giving Putin more credit than what the evidence shows, and continuing to reclaim the internet as a place for democratic speech. (I recognize these things are very hard.)
Here are some other thoughts to avoid being a “useful idiot.” (I’ve failed at these at times. But as a wise person told me last week—sometimes you write down these things to remind yourself.)
- Don’t share disinformation. If you make a mistake and share it, delete it and apologize. We all get taken at some point—but the important thing going forward is to alert others that this disinformation exists and to prevent its spread.
- Five-minute rule: When something on the internet outrages you, take a deep breath. Pause. Don’t share immediately. Google to see if there are other reputable sources reporting this story. Consider waiting until you see a second reputable source before sharing.
- Don’t let it change you into a different person on the internet than you are in real life. We wouldn’t engage some stranger standing on a street corner with a sign. Why are we engaging the person uttering foul language on the internet street corner?
- Be careful in the wake of breaking news! When there is a breaking story, treat everything reported in the first few hours with caution… especially pictures and information from strangers on the internet.
- Be careful generalizing “the media” as a whole. One of Putin’s goals is to get people to distrust Western institutions by discrediting them—including the free press. So I ask this: Be specific, not general, in your complaints. You can be upset with how a news organization reported a specific story or a mistake they made. Just make sure you’re not painting the institution of journalism with a broad brush based on an instance of human error. Don’t confuse television pundits who appear on 24-hour cable shows or memes on Facebook with actual journalists who go out and collect, fact-check and report information.
- Share your knowledge about how modern, online propaganda works so others will know how to identify it when they see it. As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) pointed out during the committee meeting on hacking last week, this same stuff was done in the Baltic states and now those folks are becoming wise to it.
- Engage with democracy. Call and write your representatives. Vote. Don’t let this disengage you from democracy! Make your representatives understand that you are a real person with real concerns and not a fake person on the internet. And be polite while you’re doing it so they take you seriously and don’t think you’re a troll!
I kind of wish Twitter and Facebook would provide an avenue for reporting people you suspect are fake troll accounts. Sometimes I’m tempted to reply with tweets/posts of passive-aggressive love like “Your dad loved you and is proud of you,” or “Do you need a hug?” (I kid.)
But the most important thing is to be informed and aware that people are trying to influence us. Be kind to each other and do not disengage from democracy.
Finally, a quick wrap-up of what will be a busy week in Washington:
Transition: President Obama will give his farewell address Tuesday in Chicago. President-elect Trump is scheduled for a press conference on Wednesday.
Confirmation Hearings: There are many hearings taking place this week, many at the same time. The Office of Government Ethics says that several of these nominees have not yet finished their ethics reviews. (On Face The Nation on Sunday, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Tenn.) said those would be completed before a vote of the full Senate.)
Embassy Envoys: The New York Times reported last week that the Trump administration is not allowing political envoys to extend their time until his new ambassadors are confirmed. There was a lot of panic about this last week, but upon further research, it isn’t as bad as it seems. It’s certainly a story but it’s important to know this only applies to politically-appointed ambassadors—the ones who usually were donors or surrogates for the Obama administration.
These are not the career Foreign Service officers. Each embassy also has a deputy ambassador who is a career foreign service officer and a staff of highly-qualified officers who will continue to run the show. Would it be nice to have Ambassador Caroline Kennedy in Japan to diffuse tension if there is a stray tweet before a new ambassador is appointed? Probably. But there are also other people who could do that as well.
Trump is clearly using this as a platform to his pledge that he is “draining the swamp.” However, this will hardly be true if he replaces those ambassadors with other donors.
So, while this is a disturbing break from tradition, it’s not as concerning as this bill that some senators are proposing that would reduce the budget for diplomatic security by 50% until the U.S. moves and opens an embassy in Jerusalem. It’s pretty gross to tie the security of diplomats to this proposal in order to force the hand of the State Department.
Want to run for office? Emily’s List will be holding a training the day after the Women’s March for women wanting to run for office. Buzzfeed has a piece on that and a link for signing up.
Pussyhat Project: Finally, I know there are a lot of people participating in The Pussyhat Project. WUSA9, here in DC, just did a story about the women collecting the hats and it is really lovely to see the notes people are sending with their contributions.