The U.S. Senate’s Dissecting of the Russian Troll Invasion

Twitter wasn’t the only social media platform used to spread propaganda
Logan Cyrus
Clemson University professors Darren Linvill (left) and Patrick Warren have spent the last year compiling and analyzing millions of tweets sent by Russian operatives from a ‘troll factory’ in Saint Petersburg.

I’m having some trouble getting the Russians out of my head. I wrote a story, which went online last week and that’ll run in the magazine’s January issue, about a pair of Clemson University professors who unlocked a 2 million-strong cache of tweets from a “troll factory” in Saint Petersburg. The “factory,” the Internet Research Agency, has spent the last five years infecting social media with pro-Russia and other propaganda designed to turn Americans against each other, erode their confidence in the country’s public institutions, and undermine the notion of a shared reality.

The implications are genuinely horrifying, a frothing hybrid of 1984, The Matrix, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the most Americans’ seeming obliviousness to or apathy toward what’s happening to them just adds a layer to the horror. And here comes another layer: The Twitter campaign is just one small part of Russia’s general use of social media as brain scrubbers.

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, chaired by North Carolina’s own Richard Burr, has prepared a report that outlines the assorted tools Russia has used in its ongoing campaign, including Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and YouTube, plus Google+, Tumblr, and Pinterest. The Washington Post, which obtained a draft copy of the report, notes that the Russian operation in 2016 particularly exploited black voters’ skepticism and distrust of American institutions to create, in the Senate committee’s words, a “media mirage” that played off genuine activists’ social media accounts “to create an immersive influence ecosystem.” (This is the logical next step in a longstanding effort on Russia’s part to turn black Americans’ well-earned disgust at their country’s mistreatment of them to Russia’s advantage.)

Its primary message was one designed to benefit the man who won the presidency: Don’t bother to vote in a system this corrupt. As has become the norm in this warped age, the people carping most about the “rigged game” are either the riggers or their beneficiaries, and the presumed endgame is straight out of a dystopian nightmare (from the Post story):

The report expressed concern about the overall threat social media poses to political discourse within nations and among them, warning that companies once viewed as tools for liberation in the Arab world and elsewhere are now threats to democracy.

“Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike,” the report said.

I don’t know about you, but the phrase “a computational tool for social control” turns my blood to cold concrete. It’s becoming clearer that something has gone horribly wrong with a world that revolves around the search engine, with Twitter and Facebook forming its opposing poles; it turns out that when you clear the information world’s slate, as social media have, of any restriction at all—when you make no distinction in value between hard news, recipes for Instant Pot chicken and targeted tweets that spread the QAnon myth—you effectively cede the arena to the richest and most ruthless. If anything goes, anything does, and people with a ton of money and no sense of social obligation get to play at will on the leveled field. If that description reminds you of anyone in particular, I invite you to reflect on the reason.

And if you want to read an extraordinarily insightful, if long, essay about social media’s corrosive effects on democracy, I’d highly recommend this essay, published in this month’s issue of Harper’s. Fred Turner, a communications professor at Stanford and author of three books, examines how the assumption, by President Ronald Reagan and others, that the deconstruction of the all-powerful state would naturally lead to a flowering of freedom has turned out to be a grave mistake. He refers to a 1989 Reagan speech in London, when he predicted “a new era in human history,” enabled by the microchip:

Communism was crumbling, just as fascism had before it. Liberal democracies would soon encircle the globe, thanks to the innovations of Silicon Valley. “I believe,” he said, “that more than armies, more than diplomacy, more than the best intentions of democratic nations, the communications revolution will be the greatest force for the advancement of human freedom the world has ever seen.”

At the time, most everyone thought Reagan was right. The twentieth century had been dominated by media that delivered the same material to millions of people at the same time—radio and newspapers, movies and television. These were the kinds of one-to-many, top-down mass media that Orwell’s Big Brother had used to stay in power. Now, however, Americans were catching sight of the internet. They believed that it would do what earlier media could not: it would allow people to speak for themselves, directly to one another, around the world. “True personalization is now upon us,” wrote MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 bestseller Being Digital. Corporations, industries, and even whole nations would soon be transformed as centralized authorities were demolished. Hierarchies would dissolve and peer-to-peer collaborations would take their place. “Like a force of nature,” wrote Negroponte, “the digital age cannot be denied or stopped.”

One of the deepest ironies of our current situation is that the modes of communication that enable today’s authoritarians were first dreamed up to defeat them. The same technologies that were meant to level the political playing field have brought troll farms and Russian bots to corrupt our elections. The same platforms of self-expression that we thought would let us empathize with one another and build a more harmonious society have been co-opted by figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos and, for that matter, Donald Trump, to turn white supremacy into a topic of dinner-­table conversation. And the same networked methods of organizing that so many thought would bring down malevolent states have not only failed to do so—think of the Arab Spring—but have instead empowered autocrats to more closely monitor protest and dissent.

Or, in the case of Russia’s IRA, to infect the stories Americans tell about themselves and each other to the point of what increasingly looks like a prelude to civil war. (You could make a good case that the war’s already begun, and it has a body count. It’s just that most of the battlefields are online.) This is where I really should offer some optimism, or at least a stirring call to action—this is how we fight this terrible enemy! If any of you thinks of one, let me know or tweet it out, because I’m afraid I’m at a loss. “With at least some of the Russian government’s goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback,” the Senate report concludes, “it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future.” The troll armies march on.

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