If events of the past few weeks haven’t convinced you that the United States is engaged in a full-on proxy war with Russia — and that we’re losing — then at this point you may be considered delusional, naive, brainwashed, or a bot. The question now is what we can do about it, both as individuals and as entities. I have some ideas.
A recap: Two weeks ago, leaders of American intelligence agencies warned the Senate Intelligence Committee that rampant Russian undercover social media activity, in the form of fake accounts sowing misinformation on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, would only be increasing in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller and the Justice Department indicted 13 Russians and three companies — two with close ties to the Putin government — on charges of subverting the 2016 election and supporting the Trump campaign through a far-reaching and sophisticated social media campaign.
That an army of automated bots, sockpuppet accounts, and organized trolling campaigns exists— fueled by interests and individuals inside and outside the United States — is undeniable. Look at the rapid-response online attacks against the surviving students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., claiming that Democratic funding must be behind their furious anti-NRA activism in honor of their dead friends.
Follow Politico journalist Molly McKew’s uncovering of the trail of the #releasethememo meme from one Michigan Twitter user with 74 followers to an array of Russian-sponsored “amplification” bots and US enablers that targeted Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee over 217,000 times.
We are under assault via the electronic media to which so many of us have given over our lives, our eyeballs, and much of our trust over the past two decades, and don’t expect many of our elected representatives or business leaders to do much about it. Think, instead, about what options we may have as individuals and citizens en masse.
We could call on the CEOs behind the major social media platforms — Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (www.facebook.com/zuck), Twitter’s Jack Dorsey (www.twitter.com/@jack), Youtube CEO Susan Wojcicki (www.twitter.com/@SusanWojcicki), Instagram’s Kevin Systrom (www.instagram.com/kevin) — to step up efforts to aggressively police and clean up their user bases, doing so with transparency while making it easier for legitimate users to report suspected violators and for the companies to remove them.
But that’s assuming the people running our daily social media interactions want to cut into their user numbers and profits. Twitter has claimed that it is taking action and that 1.4 million users have “received a notice” that they are on watch. But experts estimate that the number of “bot” accounts on Twitter, some useful and many malicious, range from 9 to 15 percent of the entire database, or 30 million suspect accounts.
In short, our info-gatekeepers’ interests run counter to those of their users, and as we approach the 2018 midterm elections and an expected ramping up of bad-actor activity, it’s probably useful to think of these companies as passive collaborators (at best) until proven otherwise. And media outlets whose comments sections can be similarly overrun by trolls, paid or otherwise, have trouble addressing the issue as well.
(That includes The Boston Globe, whose comments fields after the DOJ indictments were announced were instantly overrun by a handful of the same user-names posting similar messages multiple times. It has been pointed out that a paid-for subscription is necessary to comment on many newspaper websites. Yet it’s not past the pale of possibility that a well-funded organization such as the ones indicted by the Justice Department — organizations dedicated to fomenting instead of commenting — might target nationally known news outlets with a handful of paid human “bots” to stir the pot on a daily basis.)
Some of those accounts are pressing left-wing memes, while most seem to come from the right. The overall aim is to polarize, to erode civil discourse, to sow doubt about the way democracy works. In the end, it falls on the individual social-media user — to you and to me — to be proactively smart about what we’re reading, where it comes from, and whether its purpose is to inform and inflame, spread facts or falsities.
It means teaching yourself how to recognize an automated bot retweeting trumped-up memes, or human sock puppets pretending to be “average Americans,” by Googling up articles on the subject (like this primer at medium.com/data-for-democracy/spot-a-bot-identifying-automation-and-disinformation-on-social-media-2966ad93a203) or using botcheck.me to identify probable fake Twitter accounts.
It means checking out the Hamilton68 dashboard at dashboard.securingdemocracy.org, which tracks memes and hashtags spread by 600 monitored Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.
Until more apps and websites appear to help us navigate our cacophonous and poisonous digital world — are you listening, concerned programmers? — it’s on us to refuse to take the bait while urging our media outlets to do the same, despite the ratings that a daily dose of outrage can bring. It’s incumbent on citizens to urge legislators and prosecutors to understand we’re under attack from an outside entity inimical to US values and democratic processes and that there are those inside our borders complicit in this attack, to the point of what a disinterested onlooker might reasonably consider treason.
One other thought: We’re in this mess partly because of our addiction to the electronic otherworld in which we spend far too much of our days. (I count myself among the afflicted.) How about giving ourselves a national day off? Why not remember what it was like before the advent of social media by going dark from Twitter and Facebook and all the rest for 24 hours? I don’t expect it would make much of a dent in their traffic but maybe it might get Zuckerberg’s and Dorsey’s attention. At the very least, you’d be able to hear yourself think — and to hear what the genuine human beings around you are saying and feeling.
I’m going to turn off the noise on Wednesday, March 7, and spend the day pondering what we’ve wrought and talking about who’s doing the wreaking. Feel free to join me.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.