Propaganda campaigns like the one run by the Russians only work if the people they are aimed at allow them to work.
First the bad news: You’ve been scammed.
Now the bad news: If you don’t believe you’ve been scammed, you are about to get scammed again.
Lawyers for the titans of social media companies appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week to talk about how Russia used their platforms in an attempt to create divisiveness in our country.
Most of the discussions up until now have been dominated by talk of Russia trying to help get Donald Trump elected. But the real truth, that Russia’s aim was and still is to sow seeds of dissention, is finally getting more attention.
Facebook said as many as 126 million users may have been exposed to content that originated from Russian sources. Twitter noted that Russian-controlled bots – those computer algorithms designed to pick up and spread specific bits of information – sent about 1.4 million tweets. It also said it found more than 2,700 Russian accounts. Google, for its part, admitted a far smaller number – just over a thousand – videos were traced back to the Russians, but that number likely was much higher.
A key point from the testimony is that prior to the election, the focus was on helping Donald Trump get elected and, after the election, the focus was on delegitimizing Trump’s win. Let that sink in. The aim of the Russians, overall, was never to favor one candidate over another. The aim was to fan the flames of division in our country. And they succeeded.
Predictably, calls are already mounting for censuring or even outright banning of some types of social media posts. And while it would be good to impose the same regulations as have been long-established for other media – making sure the posts include information about where they are coming from and who is behind them – ultimately shutting down free speech is not the answer to a problem that would have been far less impactful had not Americans long ago abandoned their God-given right to free will.
Free will puts you in the position of determining, for yourself, the path that you want to take. In the political arena, far too many people identify with a specific political party and abdicate their vote to that party regardless of where the individual stands on any particular issue. Alternatively, they are so set in their views that nothing will change their mind. They avoid any information that runs counter to what they believe, and readily pass along any garbage appearing in their news feeds that supports their view.
The good news is that in recent years the number of people who say they are independent has been growing. But it hasn’t reached the point in most areas where it can counter the political machines. Additionally, the number of people adverse to knowledge seems to be growing at a far faster pace than those interested in exercising their free will to learn. Like the Russian bots sending and resending messages designed to promote fighting amongst ourselves, the zombie loyalists spread false and misleading information across social media.
I have to laugh when the extremists on the right or left start screaming about their rights. Your rights as an American citizen come with the caveat that there are also certain responsibilities you need to exercise in order to maintain those freedoms you say that you cherish.
Chief among those responsibilities is the requirement that you educate yourself about issues before you begin spouting off. I have absolutely no problem with any individual who holds a viewpoint that may run counter to my own, unless, of course, that viewpoint is based on ignorance or is supported by falsehoods. As a nation, we should be able to rationally discuss differences, hammer out compromises and find common ground on which to move ahead, no matter what the issue. But far too many of us are far too eager to form opinions based not on our own knowledge and research, but on what someone else tells us. And increasingly, we don’t even care what the source of that information is as long as it supports our preconceived notions.
This is why the Russian campaign was so effective. And the bottom line here is that if we don’t care enough about our country and finding ways to protect it, then we are destined to fall. Right now, we have an administration in Washington that seems more intent on exploiting divisions – basically furthering the work that the Russians have been doing – rather than finding ways to bring us together.
We need to reject that attitude, and we need to do so quickly. The 2018 midterm elections are coming up, and you can bet that misinformation and lies will be spread in all directions against candidates of all political persuasions. We can go along with that, if we want, and get scammed again, further eroding the basic fabrics that have traditionally held us together, or we can fight against it by reclaiming our right to free will, our right to find out for ourselves and make informed decisions based on knowledge and understanding.
That means, of course, that you won’t always be right. But it also means that you won’t always be wrong. Propaganda campaigns like the one run by the Russians only work if the people they are aimed at allow them to work.
There is no shame in falling for the scam the first time. But now that we know their objective, and how they intend to achieve it, it is up to us to ensure that it does not happen again.
Jim Lee is editor for Gatehouse Media Delaware. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.