Sohn: Fixing social media has to start with each of us

Sohn: Fixing social media has to start with each of us

December 18th, 2018 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

In this July 16, 2018 file photo, U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shake hands in Helsinki, Finland. Two reports released this week detail the degree of social media meddling undertaken by Russia in support of Trump. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The "hoax" was quite real. And seemingly quite effective. The Russians got a puppet installed in our Oval Office.

After they stole information, warped it and leaked it out to us, posed as our "friends" to twist both the truth and our perceptions of it, they even got us to help them.

They never fired a shot, never moved a warship, never launched a missile.

They just pretended to one of us and clicked. Over and over. Rinse and repeat.

And we fell for it.

That's the take-away from two recent unrelated reports commissioned by and produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reports examine how the Russians used social media in the 2016 election.

One report, produced by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company based in Austin, Texas, along with researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC, was released Monday.

The short of it, as detailed in The New York Times, is that Russians took advantage of our biases and beliefs, then exploited them to further divide us and get us to vote to their — not our — advantage.

Workers at Russia's now famed Internet Research Agency created social media accounts under fake names on virtually every social media platform — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, YouTube and many others. The clear and major goal was to support Donald Trump, first against his Republican rivals in the primary then in the general election — and, yes, as president since his inauguration.

The efforts often were gradual, but sophisticated: Russian operators would build an audience with one theme and then shift to another, often with a more provocative set of messages

For instance, an Instagram account called @army_of_jesus_ first posted in January 2015 images from The Muppet Show, then shifted to The Simpsons and by early 2016 became Jesus-focused. Multiple memes associated Jesus with Mr. Trump's campaign and Satan with Mrs. Clinton's.

Another favorite effort was to target African Americans in an effort to suppress their election turnout among Democratic voters. Renee DiResta, one of the report's authors, said the Russians leveraged the Black Lives Matter movement that was vocal as the election geared up. She said they also took advantage of "Blue Lives Matter" material when a pro-police pushback emerged.

"Very real racial tensions and feelings of alienation exist in America, and have for decades," DiResta told the Times. "The [Russian Internet Research Agency] didn't create them. It exploits them."

Of 81 Facebook pages created by the Russia's Internet Research Agency, 30 targeted African-American audiences, amassing 1.2 million followers, according to the report. By comparison, 25 pages targeted the political right and drew 1.4 million followers. Just seven pages focused on the political left, drawing 689,045 followers.

That's followers, mind you. Not just viewings.

The right-wing pages promoted Trump's candidacy, the left-wing pages scorned Clinton and promoted Sen. Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate. The voter suppression effort focused on Sanders supporters and African-Americans, urging them to shun Clinton and either vote for Stein or stay home. Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election.

The second report, written by the Computational Propaganda Project at Oxford University along with Graphika, a company that specializes in analyzing social media, was reported on Sunday by The Washington Post. It says much the same thing adding that russians worked to "blur the lines between reality and fiction" to help elect Trump.

Gosh. Sound familiar?

And what have we done about the Russian war of hacking, misinformation and manipulation?

Nothing really. We've spent nearly three years talking about it. That's pretty much it.

Yes, special counsel Robert Mueller — you know, the lead investigator of "the hoax" — last February indicted Russia's Internet Research Agency, along with its owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and a dozen of its employees.

But Congress has done not so much, other than the Intelligence Committee's commissioning of two reports that told us what we pretty much already knew.

Intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, said in a statement that the data shows how aggressively Russia tried to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in institutions.

"Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped," said Burr, a North Carolina Republican.

Yeah? And?

Ordinarily, we would expect our Congress to aggressively examine an electoral interference like this.

But not this one. Instead, the official investigations in the House and the Senate, led by Republicans, have been dictated by GOP partisanship. Our Congress, to date, has simply refused to ask the ultimate question of whether Trump's victory was legitimate.

Clearly, that's because the thunderous answer is no, it's not.

Thus the puppet-master and his puppet keep guiding us deeper into our own implosion — with our help and that of our new and ever-manipulated social media habits.

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