It’s only February, but it’s not too early to ask a critical question about the upcoming US congressional elections: Will Vladimir Putin get a vote?
We know the Russian strongman used the Internet and social media to covertly influence the 2016 presidential election. There’s nothing to stop him trying again. And probably the only things that can keep Putin’s ambitions in check are the prudence and good sense of the American people.
In short, we’re in trouble.
We keep learning more about the scale of Russian efforts to subvert the American political process. Earlier this week, the social network Twitter revealed that Russian-controlled Twitter accounts retweeted messages written by then-candidate Donald Trump about 470,000 times between September and November of 2016. By relaying so many copies of Trump’s blunt and bumptious musings, the Russians ensured far more people would read them. They also increased the likelihood that a Trump message would appear on Twitter’s “trending” list of the most popular messages. Since millions of Twitter fans habitually read trending messages, that’s another big boost for Trump.
The Russians did play both sides, but not evenly. They retweeted messages from Hillary Clinton far less often — fewer than 50,000 times.
Nobody can prove that Russia’s efforts played a decisive role in Trump’s victory. But the disparity in retweets hints that Putin was a happy man the day after the election.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russians are bigger fans of sheer chaos than they are of Donald Trump. The social network Facebook last year unveiled a host of Russia-sponsored pages favoring a variety of left- and right-wing causes. Some pages protested racist police practices or advocated for gay rights; others called for tougher limits on immigration and support for the right to own firearms.
It’s a classic Russian play — just make trouble. One of the country’s 19th-century radicals is supposed to have coined a slogan: “The worse, the better.” In other words, to kick off a revolution, you want people to be as bitter and unhappy as possible. It doesn’t much matter what they’re angry about, as long as they’re good and mad.
Yet these ads weren’t overtly hateful or violent. They endorsed views held by millions of law-abiding Americans. The same goes for Russia-sponsored Twitter messages that reinforce widely held opinions. If you were an official at Black Lives Matter or the National Rifle Association, and saw some of these messages, you might be happy to have another ally. Even if you somehow guessed that a foreign power was behind it, you might not even care.
Not everybody feels that way. One of the most influential Twitter accounts of 2016 was @Ten_GOP, supposedly the online voice of the Tennessee Republican Party. Only it wasn’t.
“We reported it to Twitter several times,” said Candice Dawkins, communications director of the real Tennessee GOP . “We always want to make sure there’s no confusion what’s coming from our office.”
But Twitter did nothing for months. In that time, messages posted by @Ten_GOP were retweeted by many of its 130,000 followers. These included prominent Americans ranging from movie actor James Woods to singer Nicki Minaj, to President Trump’s now-disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“I didn’t fully understand the scope of it,” Dawkins said. “I didn’t pay much attention to the impact, the number of followers.” Apparently, neither did Twitter. It wasn’t until July 2017 that the company shut down @Ten_GOP as a Russian-sponsored fake.
These days, Twitter and Facebook are vowing to do better in 2018. Both companies say they’re improving their artificial intelligence tools for shutting down automated “bot” accounts that spew out clouds of propaganda without human intervention. They’re hiring thousands more humans to eyeball postings and accounts, and catch the ones their computers miss. And Facebook is going to require buyers of political ads to reveal their identities and locations. That may not stop foreign agents from planting more ads, but they’ll have to pay Americans to do it.
‘I didn’t fully understand the scope of it.’
Still, given the openness of these social networks, the Russians will always find a way. And inevitably, other countries will copy their playbook.
It would help if legitimate activists open fire on phonies masquerading as allies. The real Tennessee GOP didn’t make a public fuss about the fake one till it was too late. Dawkins now says that the party should have been more aggressive in calling out @Ten_GOP and defending its good name. Prominent political groups should directonline visitors to honest news sources and blow the whistle on frauds. But even if they do, how many of us will take heed?
And of course, individuals should resist the urge to “like” or share or retweet every hot take on the news, unless they originate with people they know or organizations they trust. But where’s the fun in that? The harm in sharing a bit of Russian propaganda is tiny, and almost theoretical, compared to the jolt of pleasure that comes from sharing the latest sick meme about Trump or Hillary. And so, two years after the shock of 2016, don’t be surprised to find Vladimir Putin once again on the ballot.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.