The bee in my bonnet this time was Russian bots and troll farms, and how they've worked to undermine American democracy. I was catching up on the story after the House and Senate Intelligence committees grilled lawyers from Google, Facebook, and Twitter about Russian meddling using their platforms. I try to follow stories like this, because in my job as a reference librarian I teach a class about recognizing fake news and other misinformation. I had honestly fallen behind on this story, though, and I was pretty gobsmacked by some of its details. Hence, the rant below:
Two things in particular were really stunning to me: 1. Russian Facebook pages posing as American activist groups, across the political spectrum, were able to organize actual protests. Using nothing but computer terminals in St. Petersburg, they were able to get people in the United States to leave their computers and go march for various causes. One protest in New York had at least 5,000 people show up. In Houston, pro-Muslim protesters and anti-Sharia-law protesters clashed outside a mosque, and BOTH groups were manipulated into doing so by Russian Facebook pages. 2. Russia is trolling both sides. That's the second thing I hadn't fully realized. Russian trolls, bots, pages, and ads on social media were (and are) posing as partisans at each end of the political spectrum.
But why play both sides like that? Like most people, I had heard that Putin favored Trump over Clinton, and I knew that Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations had tried to influence the election (that's not my liberal bias; it's the conclusion of the American intelligence community, as outlined in this brief from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.) But I hadn't realized that Russian trolls and bots had posed as partisans on the left as well as the right. What was their goal? Apparently it was to make democracy weak and chaotic; and to appear weak and chaotic, both to Americans and to Russians who might sympathize with pro-democracy movements there. Yes, they wanted Trump elected, but their broader goal was fostering division and weakening democracy in the United States. And they did a pretty good job of it. Just how good, we don't know yet.
But what we can conclude right now is that Russians aren't the only ones to blame. All they did was add fuel to a fire we lit ourselves. American civility, unity, and critical thinking were already in decline. We had already let ourselves become hyper-polarized and fearful of each other. The internet had helped us cluster into little tribal bubbles of ideology until anyone outside our bubble seemed insane and evil. Many of us had already begun thinking of other Americans as our enemies. I've certainly been guilty of these things. Russia just fanned the flames, and they did it by playing on our hotheadedness, our gullibility, and our partisan tribalism. On both sides, we're so sure we're right that a foreign government can count on us to share false information without questioning it--often without even reading it--if it outrages us enough and fits our pre-existing beliefs. And if it fits the pre-existing beliefs of the like-minded people we've surrounded ourselves with. They can't count on everyone to share it, but they can count on a certain percentage of us to. And again, that's true across the political spectrum.
And that's a big problem. Hyper-polarization, gullibility, ideological absolutism, and demonization of decent people who disagree with us--these things are like cyanide to a democracy. Judge Learned Hand once said, "The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias." If he was right, then we've lost sight of the spirit of liberty, which in my opinion is also the spirit of democracy.
I guess what I'm saying is, things won't get better unless we as Americans take a hard look at ourselves. We're too gullible, too hotheaded, too divided, and too sure of our own tribe's righteousness. Sanctions against Russia and increased diligence from Silicon Valley can only go so far. As the great sage Pogo once observed, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
So that was my rant. It's not that scathing, but after an hour or so I realized it was, in fact, rather hotheaded and self-righteous. Not only that, but it was written in the same emotional frame of mind that causes people to share false stories without checking them. In an article I read a couple of days ago, a college professor who teaches media literacy said, "When you feel strong emotion — happiness, anger, pride, vindication — and that emotion pushes you to share a 'fact' with others, STOP." Now, I hadn't shared any false information--the Russian troll farms are all too real--but as the professor says later, it's a good idea to recognize strong emotions in yourself, and take them as a cue that you're not in the most reasonable frame of mind. He's right. My emotional state blinded me to the fact that I was being hotheaded and self-righteous just as I was warning others not to be.
Plus, I was offering glittering generalities. It's easy to say we should be less hot-headed, less gullible, and less "Us-vs-Them" partisan, but it's a lot harder to offer concrete steps to achieve those goals. So, what steps can we take? That's something I need to think about more; something we all need to think about more.
In terms of dealing with attempts to by Russian troll farms to weaken democracy, there are a few things we can do, I think. One is to recognize the problem and how serious it is, and to understand how this kind of Russian propaganda works. This video is an excellent summary, which defines terms like "bot" and "troll farm" that many people may be fuzzy about. It also has advice on how to recognize when you're dealing with one. But it's not easy. With many of the Russian-generated memes, the graphics are lurid and the grammar is bad. Often there are no definite articles like "a" and "the", apparently because those aren't used in Russian. But many memes generated by Americans also have lurid graphics and bad grammar. Maybe a better idea is to distrust any hyper-partisan page, ad, or meme with these features. If it's not the Russians, it's people who are more interested in appealing to your fear and outrage than in getting you to think critically. There's a place for outrage, and even a place for fear, but we shouldn't let people use either to manipulate us.
Another thing we can do is refrain from arguing online with people we don't know, especially people we have no mutual friends with. Those people may be sitting in a troll farm in Russia, getting paid to rattle our cage. Or they may not be people at all. There are computer programs sophisticated enough to make people think they're a real person. People have even fallen in love with bots on dating sites, thinking they were real people. I don't know about you, but I would hate to find that I had wasting an hour arguing with a computer program. Maybe I have already? In any case, the way to avoid that is not to argue with strangers on public pages, especially if they seem to be arguing just to argue. What's the point of arguing with people you'll never meet, anyway? The chance you'll convince them of anything are about the same whether they're in a warehouse in Russia, their mom's basement in Pasadena, or inside a computer, existing only as lines of code.
There are probably many other steps we can take, and I need to learn them, but this post is long enough. One thing I know we need to do is realize that the threat to democracy is real. Russian troll farms are real, and they're only going to get better at what they do. But they can only weaken democracy if we let them push us in directions we were already moving in.
It seems to me there are two things that are absolutely essential in a democracy. 1. Citizens have to be reasonable and informed enough for a government by the people to be viable. This means they can't be too gullible, too uninformed, or too blinded by in-group and confirmation biases. 2. Citizens with different points of view have to be able to coexist. And that means we have to compromise--not about everything, but about many things. Living in a democracy means not always getting your way. And maybe we shouldn't get our way, because we were wrong in the first place. None of us knows everything, or has it all figured out. I certainly don't, and I can be as hotheaded and self-righteous as anybody. But one thing I'm pretty sure about is this: if Americans keep thinking they can't be wrong, and that other Americans with different opinions are their enemies, then we'll tear our democracy apart without any help from Russian trolls.