My 6th grade D&D game had a rogue who liked to watch other people fight, despite being really bad at combat himself. Whenever we returned from the dungeon, he would immediately find the largest, rowdiest tavern and town and scan the crowd for the biggest, toughest-looking bruisers in the common room. He would spend a little bit of time seeking out rumors about what was likely to make the two deadly warriors, master wizards, or whatever absolutely furious. Then he would go to each one and let it slip that the other had said or done something unthinkably awful. This usually involved somebody’s mother (hey, all of us were 12 years old). The rogue would then find some place out of harm’s way to watch the resulting fight, which invariably escalated to include everyone in the common room (the rest of us quickly learned not to follow him on these little expeditions).
We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a crude example of provokatsiya.
As we approach the end of nine months of the Trump Administration, we’ve been all but force-fed stories about malfeasance, corruption, and an apparent war on anyone who isn’t rich and white. Around the edges are the news stories that hint at collusion with Russia (if not outright espionage and treason), but sometimes what media types seem to think are huge stories about Facebook ads, Twitter bots, stolen voter roll data, and something about Cambridge Analytica seem kind of, well, not very interesting. Like what’s that thing about Russia buying ads for Black Lives Matter? And what purpose is served by using bots to retweet neo-Nazis?
I promise it makes more sense than it would appear, but real life provokatsiya requires a lot more set-up than merely tapping someone on the shoulder in a crowded tavern, pointing at a guy across the room, and telling them what he said about your mother.
Fake News is Not Fake News
In the last couple days, there have been a number of articles making the startling revelation that Facebook, Twitter, and even Pokemon Go were used to disseminate Russian propaganda ahead of the 2016 election. Since none of us saw ads on Facebook encouraging us to end the Magnitsky Act or “Make Russian Adoptions Great Again,” what is that about, exactly? The short version is that social media was used as a vector for a complex cocktail of Russian propaganda – a way to infect the eyes, brains, and hearts of Americans leading up to election day without revealing the source of those images, ideas, and stories.
Some of this was by means of advertisements on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms. It turns out that some of these were literally paid for in Russian rubles, so there is very little question who was behind those. This is almost certainly what I’ve heard described as “the tip of the Zuckerberg.” Further investigation will likely reveal that many more were “Russia gives an agent in the U.S. a bunch of money, and that agent uses that money to make substantial donations to Super PACs or other groups that buy ads.” Don’t think “PARANOIA-esque parodies of Russians living in secret in America’s cities,” here. While some are likely to be Russian nationals or U.S. citizens of Russian descent, sadly, many were Americans who just weren’t very curious about where this payday was coming from. The fact that it is now possible to make contributions to some political organizations in Bitcoin proooobably didn’t make it harder on Moscow, either.
Some of these ads were just ads. I mean, it’s still not good that a foreign government was allowed to buy ads in support of a U.S. political campaign, party, or candidate (read: this was illegal), but a zillion ads featuring MAGA hats wouldn’t have accomplished what the Kremlin set out to do. Rather, they made use of things like Facebook’s “recommended article” feature to push fabricated news stories meant to lionize Trump while sowing doubts about Hillary Clinton. These invariably included headlines that made it difficult not to click on them, and their contents played into the readers’ biases so effectively that people shared them or retweeted them a lot – to the point where some estimate that 70 million Americans may have been exposed to Russian propaganda via Facebook alone (and again, that only includes the ones that paid Mark Zuckerberg in rubles).
In addition to fake news, Russian intelligence set up numerous Facebook groups meant to attract users of certain political persuasions. These were promoted with ads, populated in part by Kremlin trolls and bots who pushed propaganda, and served to direct visitors to sites where they could be exposed to more of Moscow’s messaging.
The tactic of getting a hashtag trending seems like an ancient one to those of us who have been on Twitter for several years – to the point where Facebook copied the feature for their own platform a couple years ago. Trending topics attract attention, especially when they come with evocative or just plain curious hashtags.
Not only do ordinary Twitter users check them out, but news media has learned that they can use trending stories to identify news as it is breaking. This includes news about topics that people seem to be sufficiently interested in to spend a bunch of time talking about them on Twitter. It looks like a safe bet that some enterprising journalist could check out the hashtag, do a bit of research, and use it to produce a news segment. And so a social media hashtag becomes a news story.
Historically, this has been a pretty nifty feature of the platform, but it turns out that Russia was all over that angle, as well. They created hundreds of thousands (if not hundreds of millions) of bot accounts for Twitter and other social media platforms whose singular purpose was to amplify fake news stories and other Moscow-approved messages. Once the hashtag started trending, U.S. users would pick it up and share it in turn. Then members of the media would notice the trend, investigate, and conclude that Americans were suddenly very interested in, say, Hillary Clinton’s emails (or Pizzagate or whatever). So then that story would hit the news, and suddenly literally everyone was consuming a nonstop diet of Russian propaganda no matter where they turned for their news.
Americans have been blessed with a news media that they can reasonably trust to provide them with honest reporting. We might disagree with their choice of focus or their editorial commentary, and we certainly learn to trust some sources less than others. To be fair, Hillary did have an email thing that could have been handled better, but our trusted Fourth Estate, those stalwart bastions of the 1st Amendment, failed us because they forgot to ask the key question of why all these weird hashtags and fake news stories were as thick as dandelions on every social media platform in 2016. Instead of seeking out news, they let Twitter and Facebook (and millions of Russian bots amplifying Kremlin messages) tell them what news was important. And so they missed the biggest story of the year (if not the century).