I am sick of reading the phrase “that’s how Donald Trump will win a second term.” Not because I’m not worried about that, but because virtually nobody saying it is ever addressing the very real likelihood that America will once again be under attack from a Russian psyop based on social media.
There is no argument among intelligence professionals that Russia can and did use social media to influence the 2016 election and undermine American democracy. They did this through a cunning shield of sock puppet accounts, dissemination of Russian state media, targeted demographic campaigns using Facebook’s own resources, utilization of WikiLeaks as an agent provocateur and the gullibility of prominent online presences. It worked swimmingly once, and there’s no reason to think that foreign powers with the ability to do so won’t try again. In fact, the #WalkAway hashtag campaign – which has already been linked to Russian bots – shows it has already started.
So, today I’m going to offer five practices that ordinary people can do to try and keep Russian agents and chan board douchebags from mucking around with our election.
5. Write Your Representatives on the Subject
Look, I know all the cool kids are sitting around complaining about how the system just doesn’t care, man, but that’s low-grade pig manure. Cynicism is the refuge of the lazy and cowardly. True cool is caring, initiative and the willingness to fight for things even when you’re licked. Now, does anyone need a soapbox? I’m done with mine.
Congress has been rather reticent when it comes to tackling the presumably bipartisan issue of letting foreign powers diddle our electoral process. Letting them know we want change and grilling them on what they’re doing on the subject are very important. If you haven’t gotten into Resist.bot I highly recommend you do so. It’s the easiest way to contact your representatives, keep track of when they’ll be appearing for town halls, and otherwise annoy the people in power. I bother mine at least once a week, and so should you. Ask what the hell our government plans to do about the cyber-threat.
4. Always Be Blocking
To understand why social media propaganda campaigns work you have to be aware of your role in them. We are not just targets. We are also vectors for infections. Bots and operatives are trying to increase the visibility of certain ideas in order to make them seem more legitimate than they actually are. Because of the way social media sites measure engagement that means arguments always work in the instigator’s favor.
It might seem cathartic to smack down obvious nonsense and propaganda in a public online forum, but if the bot or operative gets its message in front of another set of eyeballs because you did so then they win. Save your rhetoric for people you know are 1. real and 2. arguing in good faith. Block all others. It’s not censorship or creating an echo chamber. It’s vaccinating your online space against becoming a host for another’s psyop.
3. Avoid Sharing News Aggregators
A news aggregator is a page that exists only to repackage news for certain audiences. Remember US Uncut back in 2016 election, the leftist news outlet mostly obsessed with destroying Hillary Clinton? That’s a news aggregator. They piggyback off of original reporting by actual news outlets, pee in it a little, and sell it back to social media to inflame their targeted audience.
They also contribute a great deal to disinformation campaigns. Virtually all these stories link back to the original reporting done by local and established outlets. Share those stories instead. Those stories often have nuance and details that aggregators don’t, and they are often updated with new information because the outlets are following journalistic ethical practices that aggregators are not since they are actually just reporting on a story, not an event.
These campaigns rely on vague reinforcements of stereotypes to breed, like mosquitoes require blood to lay eggs. Aggregators, whether they mean to or not, enable those reinforcements on massively-shared scales.
2. “Owning” and “Destroying” People is Pointless
You could argue the modern conservative movement is largely based on making liberals angry and little else. You could also argue that liberals have a bit too much love of using facts to put conservatives in their place.
Both of these practices can become addictive, and in the end they aren’t doing anyone any good. As I said, in social media algorithms the argument almost always works in favor of the instigator. Engaging with the other side in a contest to see who can deliver the sickest burn only empowers their supporters to keep on the pressure. Let go of the temptation to “win.” You can’t. No one is that clever.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
1. Do Not Confuse Loud With Numerous
From Russian psyops to chan raids, all social media campaigns have one thing in common: they want to appear more numerous than they are. It’s easy to assume that a new hashtag is indicative of an idea with wide appeal, but it’s also indicative of a coordinated group of fake accounts trying to make you think that.
It’s never a good idea to assume that your social media circle represents the general population. Doing so is how Reddit boards become incubators for toxic ideas. Just because a party next door is blasting 98 Degrees doesn’t mean they’re poised for a comeback.
Check what seems to be “common sense” against polling and reporting down by trusted resources. Never assume that a single instance of something happening is a trend just because everyone you know is talking about it.
Most of all, read. Learn as much about the things that you’re supposedly angry about, and empty propaganda will affect you a lot less. A less frightening future depends on it.