Sunday, February 18, 2018

Putin and the Social Media Threat To Our Democracy

The indictment handed down by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller of 13 individuals and 3 organizations is the first physical evidence we've seen that validates what every intelligence agency has been saying for over a year: that Vladimir Putin meddled in the 2016 election. The indictment reads in pertinent part:
Defendant ORGANIZATION had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.
The platforms that the defendants used to post their derogatory information were primarily Facebook and Twitter, and the malfeasants go all the way back to 2014. According to David Graham of The Atlantic, "the goal was simply to create division and chaos by exploiting existing cleavages in American society—or as the indictment puts it, operators were instructed to create 'political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.'"

There's nothing new in the employment of these tactics. Political parties often use them on their opponents to gain an advantage. In 2012, for instance, Democrat Claire McCaskill's campaign ran two ads: one for Republican Todd Akin, calling him the most conservative Republicans in the race; the other against the establishment GOP candidate John Brunner, questioning his commitment to conservative values. Guess which one won the Republican nomination? And guess which one McCaskill beat in the general election?

What differentiates this particular episode is that this wasn't some politician looking to manipulate the opposition's voter base; this was a foreign government infiltrating the very fabric of American society to influence the outcome of an election in furtherance of its objectives. And that's what makes it a crime.

But, as it turns out, Trump wasn't the only candidate the Russians aiding. The indictment reveals that they were trying to help Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, as well. These were some of the ads that were run on Instagram and Facebook:

"Choose peace and vote Jill Stein. Trust me, it's not a wasted vote."

"We cannot resort to the lesser of two evils. Vote Bernie."

Other ads attempted to depress voter turnout among African Americans by encouraging them to stay home rather than vote for "Killary." Hashtags like "Hillary4Prison" and "Clinton FRAUDation" began popping up on Twitter in the run-up to the election.

I remember the "Lesser of two evils" memes very well. If I had a dollar for every time one of them popped up on my Facebook page, I'd have enough money to fill my gas tank for the next three months. Sadly, this and other memes like it were being forwarded by friends who in all likelihood never knew they were being played. Even now, many of them still are reluctant to come to grips with the reality that a foreign government might have influenced their opinion about a presidential candidate.

As far as the Jill Stein memes are concerned, if you add up all the votes she received in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, they add up to more than the margin Clinton lost to Trump by. So much for not being a wasted vote.

And that is why all us should be VERY concerned, because Putin is not done fucking with us. Yes, Mueller issued an indictment. So what? You actually think that means anything to him? So long as he has his puppet in the White House, we can expect more Russian interference in our elections.

Even now, his bots are actively trying to manipulate the gun debate in the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida by taking a pro-gun position. Without a credible defense against these attacks, they will only continue, if not intensify.

And that's why all of us need to be on guard. Since this president has abdicated his responsibility as commander in chief, it is up to us to safeguard our democracy. Regardless of who you support, be suspicious of anything you read on social media that makes outlandish charges against politicians that might not be substantiated by the facts, even if those charges reinforce your preconceived notions. Go that extra mile to verify the validity of claims before forwarding them to your friends. I have been as guilty of this as anyone.

We still don't know who will be running against Trump in 2020, but this much we can take to the bank: Putin will do everything possible to undermine anyone he perceives as a threat to him.

Be smart, be strong, be resolute.

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