Americans are so gullible. Even after all we know about Russian trolls’ attempts to influence our 2016 presidential election with phony social media posts, we still fall for their shenanigans. Even after special counsel Robert Mueller’s team indicted the Russian Internet Research Agency, nicknamed the “troll farm,” and 13 Russian nationals on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States via these fraudulent posts, we still join their deceptive Facebook pages and share their divisive Twitter messages.
In a PR move designed to make Facebook look like it is ever vigilant, it released startling information this week about having discovered and eradicated a new secret campaign to spread divisive political messages across the United States. Company executives explained that they had removed dozens of accounts from both Facebook and Instagram “because they were involved in coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It makes me wonder how many of these covert misinformation accounts they haven’t found.
Facebook couldn’t say the Russians were definitely behind the latest wave of propaganda, or that it was aimed at trying to influence the upcoming midterm elections, but this drive has a focus and design eerily similar to what the troll farm dished out for American consumption ahead of the 2016 vote. And a Facebook blog post revealed that the company found proof that some of the just-deleted accounts were connected to the troll farm accounts it disabled last year.
Whatever group launched this latest effort was careful to disguise its whereabouts by using hard-to-trace private Internet networks and phone services. It also used third parties to buy its tainted online ads, which aimed to stoke the fires of political dissent. This is ever-morphing information warfare in the year 2018.
Facebook was not completely transparent about the content of all the “sophisticated” pages it purged, but NBC News geeks got to work and discovered details stored in web-based archives. They found that these latest disinformation posts specifically targeted Americans who are feminists or politically liberal, as well as those of Hispanic, Native American and African heritage. It leads me to think the creators of the misinformation believe those groups are most easily influenced. One now-deleted page discovered by NBC apparently sought to reignite racial tensions by posting a photo of child labor during the Great Depression with text that read, “Mexican and Mexican American children … were often not allowed in white schools.”
A post from a straw group calling itself “Aztlan Warriors” boasted a collage of historical figures like Crazy Horse and Geronimo and the caption, “Giving thanks, to our vets in the 500 year war against colonialism.”
A page titled “Resisters” shared a post with the headline “Women don’t have to” and then listed various traits like “be thin,” “cook for you” or “listen to your bull—-.” The same “Resisters” posting urged those who are unhappy with the Trump administration to occupy the Washington, D.C., Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters. The demonstration was called the “Stop Ripping Families Apart! Take over ICE HQ” event.
In all, Facebook says, these deceptive accounts urged attendance at 30 protest demonstrations around the country, including an upcoming Aug. 12 event designed to confront white supremacists commemorating the anniversary of last year’s deadly White Lives Matter rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Among the most shocking revelation was the fact that more than 290,000 Facebook accounts followed at least one of these disinformation pages. I understand that it’s human nature to gravitate toward like-minded individuals, and that if you want to communicate with others online about your politics, your heritage or anything else, you have the absolute right to do so. But it’s clear our enemies — be they Russians or anyone else — are deliberately trying to manipulate us into frenzies of overreaction. Their odious goal in posting these incendiary messages is to undermine our democracy by sowing political discontent, to create violent confrontations at what should be peaceful demonstrations of honest protest.
That hundreds of thousands of us are falling for these propaganda posts and following, friending or sharing their words should give us all pause. Let’s face it: In doing so, we are helping our enemies divide us. That’s a chilling thought.
Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent, says, “The Kremlin seeks to infiltrate audiences along any and all divisive social issues, then once the audience is won, push them politically.” And what does he see as Russia’s end game? “The goal is to create fear in the audience that things are unstable and that democracy and its institutions are failing,” he says.
The Russians have been trying to divide us and create political chaos in American since the ’40s — long before social media existed. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they are continuing to do it. I don’t care what Russian President Vladimir Putin says.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at email@example.com, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.