Who remembers the Russian “troll farms” from 2016? I remember hearing how Russia had infiltrated our social media platforms and tricked millions of people into supporting Donald Trump. That is a scary vulnerability introduced through platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. For millennia, espionage strategies have included sowing discord, but it was an incredibly difficult task to spread such discord. Social media platforms are an amplifier to any Russian antagonist trying to communicate divisive messages to the American public.
Here’s the thing though (link):
- Facebook identified that roughly $100,000 of ads that were purchased by a Russian company with connections to the Kremlin.
- This ad campaign consisted of about 3,000 ads focused on divisive social issues
- The ads were purchased through 470 fake accounts.
Do those numbers match up with the perception in your head of how much Russia “troll farms” contributed to Donald Trump’s victory? They certainly didn’t match up with mine. For anyone who desires some context, Facebook’s 2016 ad revenue was $8.63bn. That means the “troll farms” accounted for 0.00116% of the ads run on Facebook (Facebook discovered some other ad purchasing that had much looser ties to Russia, and because of that I have not included them, but those ads would not have even doubled these ads).
What if there was a successful Russian espionage campaign? What if the Kremlin used its resources to spin a negative narrative about one of our presidential candidates? What if the Kremlin had successfully planted misinformation about socially divisive issues? I don’t think it is controversial for me to say that would be very disturbing and strong diplomatic action should be deployed to prevent meddling in the future.
But…what if our own media was the one that did all that?
During the 2019 Democratic Primary, the media rarely covered Tulsi Gabbard, a Representative for Hawaii, and her campaign. However, in the moments that she was graced with the spotlight, she was often asked about Bashar al-Assad (they would briefly touch on why she had gained the spotlight, but then quickly switched to Assad in a way not unlike asking about someone’s kids for the first time in forever because you want to ask for a favor and feel awkward asking it straight out). Assad is the President of Syria, and the United States government does not like him (he has been accused of some pretty horrific war crimes and his leadership is classified as a dictatorship) and, along with many other nations, asked him to step down. Gabbard is a firm anti-interventionist, meaning she does not believe the US should be participating in what she calls “regime change wars”. She went on a fact-finding mission to Syria and got a chance to sit down with Assad and she took it. The Democratic Party and the left leaning media, who have become war hawks in recent decades, decided that sitting down to speak with an enemy of the US made Gabbard something not far short of an enemy of the state (keep in mind, Gabbard is a United States Army Reserve officer). Here is Anderson Cooper using a large portion of a sit-down interview with Gabbard to get her to disavow Assad as a “brutal dictator”. Here is a New York Times article admonishing Gabbard because some “distasteful” Republicans like her. Here is a Guardian article expressing outrage that Gabbard might commit the great sin of talking with a potential war criminal. I can show you so much more, but I think this conveys the pattern.
I have spoken about the Covington High School scandal (in this post), in which the media falsely portrayed a young high school boy in a MAGA hat as an aggressor in an incident outside of the Lincoln Memorial. Even when evidence that disproved the media narrative surfaced, many outlets did not apologize or retract their coverage, and the ones that did, issued lukewarm apologies. Just 11 days later, Jussie Smollett, a black gay actor, alleged that he was attacked on his way to Subway at 3am during a polar vortex after he had just arrived in Chicago by two white men wearing MAGA hats. The media decided to cover this story as fact with no hesitation, even though most people who looked closely at the story could see that it was likely a hoax (Smollett did stage it, though I do not think he has yet admitted such). The media was excited to report on such stories because of the division it would drum up; so excited that they did not feel obligated to employ due diligence and got both stories wrong in a short time frame.
If Russia tried to accomplish similar effects, we would need to react strongly as I have said before, but what are we supposed to do if it is our own media? The situation we are in is both easier and harder to deal with than foreign disinformation campaigns. On one hand, the media works for us so, as our friend Donald Trump loves to do, we could just fire them. Stop watching all media networks and get your news from alternate independent sources. On the other hand, each partisan faction has its own pet media that they trust enough so that it would be difficult to get consensus in a boycotting of the media. People on the left trust Rachel Maddow, and conservatives trust Tucker Carlson.
What seems to be a triumvirate of the Democratic National Convention, left-leaning media, and big tech complicates things even further. How are we supposed to consume alternate forms of news media? Well we could check out independent journalists and pundits on YouTube. Oh wait, nope. YouTube has been working hard to have their algorithm push “authoritative news”, and there is a lot of evidence that independent creators have not been privy to much algorithmic promotion. Twitter has their own system of verification: The Blue Check. This Blue Check cannot be applied for, only awarded, and seems to be reserved for those with notoriety whom Twitter approves of. This was pointed out recently by Dr. Heather Heying as she noticed that she, with 125K followers, had no Blue Check, but a Facebook staffer, with just 1.5K followers (who reached out to inform Heying’s husband’s, Bret Weinstein, that his ban from Facebook had been a mistake), did have a Blue Check. It seems to be just another way for a tech platform to control who is considered “legitimate”. With all these odds stacked against us, what can we do?
This may sound a bit hokey, but we need to get better at talking to each other. We are living with institutions that are supposed to be serving us but have become warped in an Orwellian manner. Person to person communication relies on no institution and can be untouched by their corruptions. With Thanksgiving coming up, I would encourage you all to try to be patient with the family members you disagree with and seek understanding and common ground. Just as the current pandemic is putting a damper on Thanksgiving plans, the pandemic of division has been affecting our Thanksgivings for many years. There is no vaccine coming for the pandemic of division; we need to defeat it by reaching out to each other and fostering good relationships despite political disagreements.
Happy Thanksgiving to all of my readers 😊
P.S. Something that foreign election meddlers would be challenged to accomplish would be to suppress a candidate. That is something our own media is uniquely positioned to do. As many of you reading may know, Andrew Yang was my top choice candidate during the Democratic Primary. Andrew Yang was constantly snubbed by the media and was notoriously given the least amount of talking time in the debates despite polling higher than some of his competitors. The Rising just covered a tweet of a former MSNBC staffer that corroborates the suspicion of those who followed the #YangMediaBlackout. The staffer indicates that they “told that we were never to pursue Andrew for an interview on our show”. Talk about the game being rigged against you. If anyone is interested, here is a cataloguing of the #YangMediaBlackout.
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