Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they haven’t got you already.
― with a nod to Joseph Heller, Catch-22
- I look at, first, how we are personally and individually being targeted for emotional distress
- And, second, how artificially upping the fear factor in a variety of ways magnifies that distress.
- I look at the result of this in uncivil society, a flight to authoritarian leaders, and Grey Goo.
- I consider who might benefit from high-jacking our fear and outrage to create the erosion of democratic institutions and open society.
- I explore some possible ways to resist.
Recent news highlights Russian involvement in the 2016 election using Facebook, Twitter, and other channels. The most common conclusion is the goal was to elect Donald Trump.
This conclusion is wrong.
What’s being targeted is our ‘social cohesion’: our assumption of common purpose; our ability to engage in meaningful dialog.
(The original form of this article is now behind Medium’s paywall. The new version here is split into parts and made more culturally neutral.)
1. Data Point: Where There’s Smoke, There’s Nonsense.
On 9/11/2014, well before the 2016 election, the Columbian Chemical plant near Centerville, LA, appeared to have exploded.
The evidence: folks in the area received a text message alert on their phones. Dozens of Twitter accounts posted hundreds of tweets targeting reporters and others that might help generate maximum attention.
This was supported by clones of local TV and newspaper websites, fake CNN screenshots, a Wikipedia page, and a YouTube video.
Tracking the accounts back to Russia, Reporter Adrian Chen felt certain both these hoaxes were the work of a Russian group, the Internet Research Agency, from St Petersburg.
This is the same group that ran the Facebook accounts that the Senate is now investigating for interfering with the 2016 election.
A clear takeaway? If you lived near the Columbian Chemical plant, people were being paid to terrify you.
This is simultaneously interesting, sinister, and weird.
Chen goes on to note this was not an isolated incident:
In December of 2014 the same accounts touted a fake Ebola disaster at the Atlanta, GA, airport. Simultaneously, a different set of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been killed by police again in Atlanta.
What could this possibly be about? To understand, we need to dig into the current state of mood manipulation on social media.
2. Old School: Your Basic Garden Variety Emotional Manipulation
Over the past few decades I’ve noted two mutually reinforcing trends in media.
We’ve moved from ‘lean back’ to ‘lean forward’ media, i.e. from TV and radio to computers both desktop and handheld, e.g. smart phones, that embed us in a stream of information. Second, we’ve moved from mass advertising to hyper-personalized ads.
This second point is, in turn, built on two intertwined trends. The ads we see are based on an increasingly detailed knowledge of who you are and, second, the advertising can, increasingly, watch your responses and flex appropriately.
This isn’t merely Facebook and Twitter. There’s a huge amount of data collected via browser cookies that isn’t as widely discussed and, with Congress’s recently over-ruling existing privacy protection, it could potentially get much nastier. It’ s roughly the old ‘direct mail marketing’ profile of you that starts with census tract info, voter data, etc. but is now on steroids as your social media and browsing profiles are fed into it.
What this all means is that what most folks consider the current state of advertising (click-bait headlines, ads that chase you around, dynamic split testing, etc) is actually old school. It is important to understand it; the new ugly is simply layered on top of the old.
For a bit of nostalgia, here’s a few good articles on on how to defuse that type of advertising.
- How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Magician and Google Design Ethicist
- This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit: the story of how one metric has changed the way you see the world.
3. Data Point: Micro-targeting
I started developing an interest in automated micro-targeting after reading two articles (both here) in Bloomsberg BusinessWeek from the final weeks of the 2016 campaign. Trump’s team worked Facebook Ads at a high level of sophistication almost to the exclusion of everything else. They used Facebook data to schedule rallies at the epicenters of support. They ran 1000s of ad variants aimed very narrowly at specific types of supporters. There is suspicion that they used individual psychological profiles gathered through Facebook questionnaires to zone in on individual tendencies. (You know, those ‘harmless’ questionnaires your friends Share to your timeline for you to fill out.)
The most interesting part to me was this:
“[In addition] Trump’s campaign has devised…a strategy, which, not surprisingly, is negative. Instead of expanding the electorate, Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” says a senior official. They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.”
Let’s put this differently.
If you are a young lefty and/or a young woman and/or African American then people were paying to make you depressed.
These articles were the tip of a surge of information that brought into the public eye micro-targeting, the possibility of Russian influence, and Cambridge Analytica with their psychological profiles of individual voters (if they can tell you’re depressive to start with they can really yank your chain.)
Interest in the topic seems to wax and wane. Lately there’s been an uptick with revelations of Facebook ads placed by Russian fake accounts. We’ll return to that later.
4. Data Point: Russian Bots and Bernie Bros
The next point of interest is an article by Leah McElrath, Watching the hearings, I learned my “Bernie bro” harassers may have been Russian bots, published in early April (2017.)
During the campaign season, I was vocal on Twitter about my support for Hillary Clinton. As a result, I became used to receiving sexualized and gendered abuse, and even rape and death threats, on a daily basis.
A great deal of the abuse came from so-called #MAGA accounts…. However, the rest of the abuse came from accounts purporting to be supporters of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Almost all of the accounts presented as men — mostly young and white — and used sexist and misogynistic tones and words.
As more and more information came out…I began to suspect — correctly — that many of these accounts were not real people but rather were accounts with fake identities or bots.
Let’s put this differently.
If you’re female and participating in political discussions on social media, people are paying to terrify you. They’re paying to make you feel vulnerable and isolated.
If the term terrify seems excessive to you, start by googling “sports illustrated threats women” and reading Julie DiCario’s article from 2015.
What’s happened since is an increasing automation of this terrorist activity.
5. Data Point: Russian Bots and Anti-Semitism.
McElrath uses a somewhat casual ‘textual analysis’ of the language her attackers used to come to her conclusion.
Her conclusion has been disputed. (Links here.) I don’t find the counter-arguments convincing, particularly in light of a much more rigorous analysis published in Medium by Data for Democracy just a few days prior: Sockpuppets, Secessionists, and Breitbart — How Russia May Have Orchestrated a Massive Social Media Influence Campaign
If you’re short on time, skip my article and go read theirs. It gives a presciently complete picture of what has emerged in dribs and drabs from other sources since.
We’ll return to their more general conclusions below but there is one point that provides insight into what underlies McElrath’s claim for the source of her harassment.
In addition to fervent pro-Trump support, the shift in community discourse driven by these sockpuppet accounts corresponds to a documented increase in anti-Semitic language on all three platforms [Twitter, Facebook, Breitbart comments].
Let’s put this differently.
If you’re Jewish, people are paying to make you feel a sense of deep unease about your fellow citizens and to undermine your sense of safety…if not flat out terrorize you.
The point has to be made that Russian bots are not out there tipping over gravestones. They may, however, have been a key part in terrorizing Jewish reporters. Certainly adding this into the mix of alt-right discourse encourages existing anti-Semitism to crawl out from under the rock.
5. WTF First Pass: A Conceptual Framework
Some take-aways from all of the above.
- It’s quite possible that the objective of generating fake anti-Semitism was to simultaneously increase anti-Semitism, widen the gap between the right and the left, and widen fractures within the right.
- One key factor in selecting a target seems to be divisiveness not the target per se.
- An apparent shit storm may actually be a couple of shit heads: Russian bots or possibly just random assholes.
What’s going on? Well, it’s all political. (Doh!) But what does that mean? Here are my 2 cents.
- My operational definition of politics is acting to unite your friends and divide your enemies.
- Adding something I learned from the game of Go: in a turf war, the point your opponent wants is most often the point you want.
Corollary 1: Figuring out what’s being attacked should lead us to understand our enemies’ perception of our strengths and vulnerabilities…of how they think we can be disrupted.
Corollary 2: Therefore, where they attack, we defend.
Where are we being attacked in this case? The Alliance for Securing Democracy maintains a dashboard that monitors in real time Russian influence networks on Twitter. Quoting them, here’s a hint:
Common themes for amplification include content attacking the U.S. and Europe, conspiracy theories and disinformation. Russian influence operations also frequently promote extremism and divisive politics in Western countries.
My core hypothesis is this: what’s being targeted is our assumption of common purpose and our ability to engage in meaningful dialog. The aim could be termed ‘social decohesion.’ (More on that here.)
If true, this should give us all pause whether we’re on the Right, the Left, or off at some right angle to both.
6. Data Point: The Facebook Ads
Starting around Sept 2017 accounts of Facebook ads placed by Russian puppet accounts during the 2016 election made headlines. Every other day we heard some new twist.
Surprised? Data for Democracy’s Sockpuppets, Secessionists, and Breitbart: How Russia May Have Orchestrated a Massive Social Media Influence Campaign summed it up six months prior!
Tens of thousands of bots and hundreds of human-operated, fake accounts acted in concert to push a pro-Trump, nativist agenda across all three platforms [Facebook, Twitter, Breitbart comments] in the spring of 2016.
Many of these accounts have since been refocused to support US secessionist movements and far-right candidates in upcoming European election, all of which have strong ties to Moscow and suggest a coordinated Russian campaign.
Given that, the headlines tell it all.
- Fake Russian Facebook Accounts Bought $100,000 in Political Ads
- Top senator: Russian Facebook ads were ‘just the tip of the iceberg’
- Russian operatives used Facebook ads to exploit America’s racial and religious divisions
- Russian-bought Black Lives Matter ad on Facebook targeted Baltimore and Ferguson
- Proving that nothing is sacred: Even Pokémon Go used by extensive Russian-linked meddling effort
- Not just ads; real world events!! — Exclusive: Russia Used Facebook Events to Organize Anti-Immigrant Rallies on U.S. Soil
- My personal favorite: The Heart of Texas!! — How Russia Created the Most Popular Texas Secession Page on Facebook
7. WTF Second Pass: A Pause to Summarize
My conclusion from the three data points is that, while, Russia may have been interested in Trump specifically, their overall objectives are ‘meta’ aimed at our ability to cohere as a functional democracy. They seek to polarize positions, undermine genuine dialog, erode facts, and get us at each other’s throats in an unreasoning froth. Our enemies want us to arrive at the table viewing our adversaries through a lens that makes them something grotesquely incomprehensible or, at the very least, terminally stupid.
One last headline and a quote from anonymous Senate analysts.
The apparent goal of the ads, the sources who spoke with CNN said, was to amplify political discord and fuel an atmosphere of incivility and chaos around the 2016 presidential campaign….
The article continues with Part 2 which looks at how and why our perception of the environment is being manipulated. Possible counter strategies, both personal and political, are listed in Part 3.
This is segmented and slightly bowdlerized version of the original one-piece article published here.
I’ve decided if I was going to write I might as well seek readers. I’m replacing my old system (spam everyone I know) with a mailing list. You can sign up for that below. I’ll let you know when I publish something.