How Russian Bots and Trolls Invade Our Lives - and Elections
WHEN HE was speaker of the S.C. House, David Wilkins introduced me to a lot of folksy sayings, which he used to characterize what he considered dishonest efforts of other politicians. His favorite was “Don’t tax you; don’t tax me; tax that fellow behind the tree.” It was an obvious characterization of tax-hike proposals as hypocritical and self-serving.
Slightly less obvious but still clear enough was “Let’s you and him fight.” It was his way of disparaging people who were trying to manipulate people’s behavior by manufacturing discord.
I thought about Mr. Wilkins last week when I read reporter Bristow Marchant’s article about two Clemson professors who are studying the output of more than 3,000 Twitter accounts set up by Russian agents to manipulate Americans in the run-up to the 2016 election. They’ve found evidence that a favorite Russian tactic was to post deliberately provocative Tweets designed to goad the targets into a response. Or to drive up animosity in anyone who saw them. It’s the same thing Mr. Wilkins was referring to, but today we call it trolling.
As I read about the adolescent-style insults the troll factories spit out — “Lindsey Grahamnesty, Jeb (Bush), (Marco) Rubio, (John) McCain spend more time attacking conservatives than Dems” and “@LindseyGrahamSC on @realDonaldTrump ‘I’ll Beat His Brains out’ How is it possible if he has no brains?” — I was struck once again by this simple and embarrassing truth: It appears that, to the extent that the Russians were able to influence our election, it was by tricking us into a “Let’s you and him fight” game.
How stupid are we, that we can be manipulated so easily?
And how is that anyone’s fault but our own?
Yes, I know there were and are attempts to compromise state voting systems, and those are serious threats if our federal intelligence agencies and state election commissions don’t keep one step ahead of them.
But while they work on that, maybe we ought to examine our own behavior.
We’re easy marks for this classic manipulation tactic because we’re just itching for an excuse to get angry.
Whether there was or wasn’t any collusion, I believe there’s an equally large if not larger issue here that ought to worry us all: As a society, we’re easy marks for this classic manipulation tactic, because so many of us are just itching for an excuse to get angry.
Why else would so many of us spend so much time hanging out on social media, posting insults and responding in kind to every provocative post we can find and sharing anything that makes the other side look bad, whether we know it’s true or not? That’s not healthy. Or productive.
And bless Nikki Haley for making that point last week, when she told a group of young conservatives that making liberals mad on Facebook and Twitter isn’t leadership. I hope someone delivers the same message to young liberals. And old liberals. And old conservatives.
Clearly, the Russians are very good puppet masters. But it’s not just the Russians.
Some cable “news” stations and websites that pretend to offer news make their living serving up information that confirms its audience’s pre-conceived notions — and avoiding anything that challenges them. Making and keeping us mad is the life-blood of many special-interest groups. Not mad at them; mad at their political opponents.
Let’s you and him fight.
Deprived of the language of anger, I deprive myself of much of the anger itself.
I’m extremely selective about responding to critical posts on social media, but I respond to nearly all of my emails. Most are positive, and most that aren’t are civil. A few are filled with personal insults and other venom. I used to respond sarcastically, often in a way that was subtle enough that the recipients were unlikely to even realize they were being insulted. I stopped doing that, because I knew, and that made me feel smug. And I knew that was wrong.
Now I don’t type anything that I wouldn’t say in a face-to-face conversation.
What if we all adopted a rule like that for all of our interactions?
Your posts and responses would probably be a lot nicer. And you might be surprised by what happens.
One of the things I give up during Lent is profanity. This discipline affects me mainly when I’m driving, and it has the most amazing, calming effect. Other drivers still annoy me, but only for a moment. My annoyance doesn’t spiral into yelling, or worse. Anger needs anger to sustain itself. Deprived of the language of anger, I deprive myself of much of the anger itself.
Mute the tweet. Hide the post from your timeline. Delete the comment.
We need to stop wallowing in our anger.
If your blood pressure goes up when you’re on social media, back off. Mute the tweet. Hide the post from your timeline. Delete the comment.
I don’t think public officials should do this, at least not the delete part. I’ve never done it on my professional page. But when people tag me on posts about the president or other divisive national topics — positive or negative — I hide them from my personal Facebook page.
As a private citizen, you have every right to limit the venom that gets posted on your page or that you see on your timeline. Or anywhere else. And you owe it to yourself — and everyone else who sees your page — to do just that. Not just the angry garbage that comes from the other side of the political spectrum. Turn off the stuff that comes from your side of the political spectrum as well. All of the posts about divisive issues. Everything that makes you angry that isn’t a part of your daily life.
You’ll do yourself a world of good. Who knows? You might even help save our republic.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.