Clemson University’s Media Forensics Hub has an educational quizlet online, testing whether you can tell the difference between foreign trolls and ordinary American citizens spouting their preferred propaganda: spotthetroll.org. The quiz takes you through screenshots of a series of real social media profiles that have been investigated by law enforcement or verified by the university’s research team.
The goal of the quiz is to help you learn the difference between the features of a foreign-made fake user profile and that of a real live citizen who happens to post the same types of polarizing propaganda. When I took it, there were no “gotcha” trick questions — the types of evidence that someone is a real person (however wrongheaded) were legitimate cues, not just an elaborate ruse from a very skilled spy.
Meanwhile, personal reflection: When I first heard reports that Russia had tampered with the 2016 US elections, I envisioned tampering with the actual election. Hacking electronic voting booths, for example. But it turned out that the thing everyone was very, very upset about was that foreigners had . . . made memes?
The Spot the Troll quiz confirms my feelings on that: The fake accounts are imitating . . . what ordinary US citizens also do. Is it yucky and evil and yes propaganda wars are a real thing? Sure. And who knows propaganda better than former Soviets?
But also: Propaganda campaigns, unlike bombs or terrorist attacks or internal CIA leaks only work because we choose to cooperate and share the weaponized information ourselves.
We, personally, are choosing, in a physical act that requires our direct cooperation, to work for a foreign agency.
You can completely stop foreign propaganda from passing through your machine and onto other recipients. You. Personally. You can refuse to be a pawn in the game.
How do you do this? By doing nothing! Seriously. It’s that easy.
Don’t share a news article unless you’ve taken time to verify it is a real story from a reputable news outlet (regardless of the news organizations’s spot on the political spectrum). Go visit the real website and search for the article and make sure it’s real. One of the ways the propaganda-makers work is to photoshop imaginary, 100% falsified news stories intended to generate outrage. If you don’t have time to go look? Sit on your hands. You can always go look up the story later.
Don’t share factoid memes until you’ve verified the facts. Again, these are easy to check. The facts in xyz amazing, shocking, or inspiring story aren’t drawn from deep secret wells of hidden knowledge. You can look for a quick biography of the person in question, you can search for voting records of candidates, you can google news stories from the time period the meme draws on. In a hurry? Set it aside and wait until later.
Avoid sharing highly inflammatory versions of a story. If the candidate really endorsed a horrible policy, that’s all you have to say. The facts speak for themselves.
“Jane Smith Co-Sponsored the 1987 Kill All the Puppies Bill,” is a statement that is sufficiently horrifying without putting it in all-caps and threatening people “IF YOU VOTE FOR JANE YOU HATE PUPPIESS!! DON’T LET THE PUPPY KILLER DESTROY YOUR FUR BABIES!!”
Russian bots and the American citizens who do their dirty work are trying to work people into a rage. They are not trying to protect puppies (healthcare, free markets, human lives, endangered species, civil rights, democracy), they are trying to make you share something so hyped up you can’t think straight, and meanwhile your opposition freezes in a defensive wall.
Far more effective, if you actually want to win votes for your candidate: “I know some people are supporters of Jane Smith for various reasons, especially among those who care about protecting shoes from puppy-chewing, but please take seriously the fact that she has a decades-long record of voting for puppy-killing even in cases where good shoe racks would work just as well, and she’s never acknowledged that her 1987 Kill All the Puppies Bill was a poor policy decision.”
That won’t hype up the anti-Jane base, pro-puppy base, sure, but that doesn’t matter. The base just needs to know that Jane is anti-puppies, done. They are already won over. If you want to win, you have to appeal to the people who aren’t already sold on the better choice. Your worthy, puppy-loving candidate will only gain votes if you can calmly and rationally demonstrate to Jane’s supporters that she’s a poor choice.
This is why the foreign bots post hysterical propaganda. They don’t care one bit who gets into office. Their only goal is to work Americans into a frenzy so that we are easy to manipulate because we are so terrified of the opposition doing anything, ever, that our society descends into manic collapse.
Don’t play along.
Artwork: United States Fuel Administration WWI conservation poster, circa 1917, Public Domain. Click through for the full text of the poster in the Wikimedia image description.