For an effort that was supposedly intended to get Donald Trump elected, the “Russian interference” in the United States in 2016 seems to have been interestingly eclectic.
We ran a headline the week before last about some of the activist events that were not merely promoted but actually created by Russian troll accounts on social media.
Now The Hill is reporting more on one of the online groups started by Russian trolls (according to Facebook). The group was called BlackMattersUS, and focused on the same issues as Black Lives Matter.
The Hill reports that BlackMattersUS put together an anti-Trump protest in New York City just after the election. Between 5,000 and 10,000 people participated in the protest – which had been “organized” not by a genuine American activist group, but by the online trolls.
The Hill summarizes it as follows:
Sixteen thousand Facebook users said that they planned to attend a Trump protest on Nov. 12, 2016, organized by the Facebook page for BlackMattersUS, a Russian-linked group that sought to capitalize on racial tensions between black and white Americans. The event was shared with 61,000 users.
“Join us in the streets! Stop Trump and his bigoted agenda!” reads the Facebook event page for the rally. “Divided is the reason we just fell. We must unite despite our differences to stop HATE from ruling the land.”
In September, a Daily Beast article described the reported effect of another Russia-linked account – this one pro-Trump – which was said to have prompted Trump rallies in cities around Florida in August of 2016.
The online group, also operating on Facebook, called itself Being Patriotic. Facebook shut it down in August 2017 when it was identified as “inauthentic.” In 2016, however, the account promoted forming pro-Trump rallies in 17 cities in Florida.
Daily Beast was apparently able to identify two “flash mob” rallies, in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs, that occurred in response to the appeals from Being Patriotic. The flash mobs involved a few dozen people, and according to Daily Beast, photos from the events were still posted at Facebook in September 2017.
Daily Beast found two local Florida organizers for Trump who had a general recollection of being contacted about, or being aware of such events.
In the case of the pro-Trump flash mobs, what appears to have happened – this is my deduction from the information at Daily Beast – is that the troll account copied real-world contact information from genuine Trump campaign accounts, and presented it as if it were related to the activities of Being Patriotic. A couple of the people identified that way were actually contacted about the events promoted by the troll group.
We can’t analyze the matter further, for either pro-Trump or left-wing anti-Trump accounts, because Facebook deleted all the account data when it suspended the inauthentic accounts a couple of months ago.
But we do know – again, taking the word of Facebook and media reporters for it – that much of what the troll accounts posted was simply copied from original posts by Americans who were exercising freedom of speech by putting up political-opinion content, and/or using Facebook and Twitter to coordinate political activities.
How you stop that from happening is not clear. The wiser approach – wiser than insisting that no American ever be faced with a political appeal of uncertain origin, as if that can actually be controlled – is for Americans to learn from 2016.
We the people, as social media users, can get over being duped. Frankly, I think the overwhelming, massive majority of us were never duped last year, and wouldn’t be in the future. A few dozen people in Florida, out of 315 million Americans, is a vanishingly microscopic number of respondents to a deceptive promotion.
Even the 5,000 to 10,000 galvanized to turn out for the troll-promoted anti-Trump protest after the election is a very small number. (And in the context of the numerous other protests that occurred after the election, it doesn’t stand out in any way. Far more anti-Trump protesters turned out in response to events organized by Soros-backed groups.)
We’ve known since the rise of Black Lives Matter, which had its origins as a social media presence rather than an old-style activist group with a physical headquarters and an anchor location, that online activism is a “thing.” It produces real results. It was foreseeable that online activism could be easily faked.
Groups that leverage social media for coordination will probably want to develop methods of credentialing themselves. Perhaps there’s a way for the social media platforms to foster that. The media platforms can also monitor groups as part of their routine service – Facebook and Twitter already intend to do this more diligently – and make it clear to users when a political group has been formed by foreign actors.
What is not needed is the sort of control that purports to decide for Americans what is or isn’t “fake news,” or to rule on who has a legitimate basis for a presence on social media with reference to political leaning or content. While the social media providers have a right to discriminate in the latter regard – they are private companies – there is no pretext for Congress to get involved, and seem to put the imprimatur of public policy on what the media giants do.
Ultimately, the most important thing is that the Internet remain free and open to alternative social media. If Facebook, Twitter, and Google, in their distinctive roles, end up shutting down speech one-sidedly as a way of supposedly preventing “interference” by whoever the threat of the week is, Americans need the option of going elsewhere.
We learn new things all the time, and wariness about online actors is something we can take on board without losing a step. Trying to arrange it so we never have to be wary is paving a road to Orwellian hell.