When Donald J. Trump became the 45th American to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in 2016, the big story to emerge from the aftermath of Nov. 8 wasn’t his victory alone – despite the surprising-yet-inevitable shouts of “not my president” and collective disbelief over his “upset” win over favored Democrat Hillary Clinton. Rather, it was the alarming claim that he achieved the presidency to the tune of “Russian interference.”
It is a term that continues to hang over the Trump administration three years in as the fight to reveal the supposed blood on his hands rages on day after day, unphased by a background dominated by a booming economy and the end of recession, the diminishment of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the lowest unemployment numbers the nation had seen in decades. It is a political war that shows no end in sight for either side, impervious to a heavily-hyped, yet inconclusive, Mueller report, relentless and unforgiving news coverage, and accusations of patriotic unfaithfulness at the drop of a hat whenever Trump mentions “Russia” and “friends” in the same sentence.
And three years in, as the president continues to play the “no collusion” card and call the entire battle an anti-conservative “witch hunt,” Americans still wishing to dump Trump before 2020 put forth the same hypothesis time after time: Donald Trump “colluded” with Vladimir Putin and Russian hackers – or at least encouraged them – to directly meddle in the 2016 election and deride Clinton’s seemingly inexorable campaign through Facebook and “fake news” articles.
I mean…it looked like he encouraged them…I mean, who could forget this undeniable proof of guilt in July 2016 when he said this directly to Putin and co.:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
See, he wanted the Russians to interfere! He wanted their help! HE’S BEEN GUILTY THIS WHOLE TIME! IMPEACH THE WALKING CHEETO!
Yeah…it’s not that simple. In fact, it’s a lot more than that – and a whole lot worse.
All of which brings me to yesterday.
When I first signed up for JUST 405 – “Technology, Crime and Society” – it was really just to fulfill one of last Discovery requirements (yes, I’m a senior still trying to get those out of the way, so what?). My friends told me it was an easy 100, so I decided to take it on to fill up my empty Monday schedule and listen to something vaguely intriguing and familiar all the while. And at first, it did little to blow me away: the first six chapters dedicated themselves to the basics of computer hardware, software, networks, viruses and the like, and – thanks to having an I.T. wizard for a dad – I aced the following quiz with ease. The signs screamed “full-average” ahead.
Then, last night, instructor Kevin O’Shea started talking about “Russian interference” and their 2016 efforts, a lecture that became less of a lesson and more of a revelation, one that, even now, keeps me mind-blowingly enraged.
Up until this point, I had equated the claims of “Russian interference” with a group of Russians ordered to literally and directly hijack the election and mess directly with the four-year electoral system, all in the hopes of using Trump or a similarly-endorsed candidate as some form of political “puppet” to ease U.S. tensions on Russia after eight years of suspicion held by the previous administration. Through an extensive PowerPoint presentation, however, O’Shea revealed the truer and more far-reaching extent of the Russian operation, showcasing how it went beyond damaging the election itself and sought to divide the people themselves based on deeply-held biases and beliefs that had been previously overlooked, all thanks to online platforms naively dedicated to preserving any and all free speech to a fault.
Specifically, he told the class, per the presentation, that Russia’s “disinformation campaign” against U.S. politics began all the way back in 2014, long before the election picked up steam. The objective: “sow societal and political divisions” amongst American citizens through the use of purposely controversial and outlandish internet “memes” – some pointing toward aforementioned “fake news” headlines – to generate strong negative reactions among those on social media who disagreed with the statement and pit themselves against those who supported the statements with an equally fervent passion, usually resulting in a comment war of insults, accusations and death threats.
In other words, the Russians set out to troll us.
And they accomplished such a feat not through a massive nationwide surge on the federal level, but rather through a Moscow-based “company” (with heavy government sponsoring) called the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The IRA – founded in 2013 and known in Russian internet slang as the “Trolls of Olgino” – hired a team of Russian-based hackers and bloggers to create numerous fake social media accounts, pose as U.S. activists, and post about every hot-topic issue dominating the headlines of the day, week, month and year.
To the IRA, nothing was off-limits in 2016, and everything was fair game. And they hit every topic imaginable, even those that did not receive regular nationwide coverage but still triggered deep emotions from their supporters and detractors. According to New Knowledge – publishers of an investigative “White Paper” on the IRA’s efforts – topics targeted during their election operations included the following:
Concerns of media bias; “black culture” and Black Lives Matter; Texas culture and the succession movement; Southern/confederate culture; Muslim culture; Christianity; LGBT pride and rights; the Latin community; Native American culture; Blue Lives Matter and “pro-law enforcement content;” both sides of the immigration debate; feminism and women’s rights; veteran’s affairs; the 2nd Amendment and gun rights; Syria, ISIS and the Middle East; Pro-Trump/Anti-Clinton content; Pro-Bernie or Stein/Anti-Clinton content; and meme culture itself.
And in case the list of topics alone is not enough to shock you, allow me to reference New Knowledge’s accompanying Slide Deck, their informational and graphical analysis of the IRA’s impact. In two of the most telling, and honestly haunting, infographics – two “webs” called “The Media Mirage” and the “Hashtags Link Communities” – hundreds of fake accounts promoting a variety of different and seemingly unconnected issues found themselves in a larger and deeply connected network of similar hashtags and shout-outs.
Looking at the “Hashtags Link Communities” graphic, for instance, a clustered web of general American and election-related hashtags found itself connected with Black Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, gun rights, veterans’ affairs and the LGBT community through just a handful of hashtags like “#usa,” “#freedom,” and the most popular one, “#america.” Meanwhile, anti-law enforcement content found a connection to religious rights through “#jesus,” and the latter bridged a commonality with current-day feminism thanks to the unbelievably generic “#love.”
Social media accounts, the originators of such hashtags, also make a major splash in the Slide Deck. Although many accounts promoted the same hashtags bridging a million issues at once, the most frequent offender was Instagram account “@blackstagram__,” an IRA-backed “pro-black” community and culture account that is no longer active as of this writing. At its height, according to Wired, “@blackstagram__” boasted over 300,000 followers and frequently garnered upwards of 10,000 likes per post, acquiring national infamy in June 2017 when it shared a meme of eight female legs of differing skin colors with the caption, “All the tones are nude! Get over it!” The post ultimately earned roughly 250,000 likes and 7,000 comments, most of whom probably responded to the purposefully open-ended prompt, “What is your color?”
These examples capture only the tip of the iceberg, an iceberg that struck the heart of American society and civility harder than it struck the Titanic. One only needs to look at the endgame numbers to see how: at the end of the day, O’Shea revealed that, per the report, the IRA reached a staggering 126 million people on Facebook, posted 10.4 million tweets on Twitter, uploaded 1,000+ videos to YouTube, and reached over 20 million users on Instagram. And those did not account for the moves they made on other platforms like Reddit, Tumblr, Medium, Vine, Meetup, and even “Pokémon Go.”
That’s right. They used a mobile smartphone game to divide this country. They went that far.
As for the “why” behind our failure to see past the trolls, it gets even worse. You see, aside from masterful meme-making abilities and extensive research, the IRA took advantage of an undiscussed yet vital human flaw: the brain. Specifically, they manipulated our basic desire for what O’Shea called “cognitive ease.”
“Cognitive ease” refers to the “EASE at which you can recall a piece of information leads you to believe that it’s more credible and reliable,” according to the PowerPoint. The need for “ease” stems from the idea that the brain “hates” hard mental exercise and work and is thus is divided in half, in more ways than just left and right. O’Shea method of splitting the brain resulted in “System 1” and “System 2.” The former is the brain’s “default” setting, a “reaction-based” system that requires very little “advanced thinking” and makes decisions based on the convenience of recall and memory alone; as a result, System 1 does not bother to check the source of a piece of content or reference, regardless of its authenticity or origin.
The latter “System 2,” meanwhile, is the brain’s engine-of-sorts, the productive end of the brain that, because of its ability to inspect, investigate and dissect content and life events accurately, requires lots of “cognitive energy” and intense self-control to maintain for more than a minute at a time, let alone master for longer periods. It is this end of the brain that allows journalists like me to dismiss the memes and trolling from organizations like the IRA, focus on the facts and resist drawing impulsive conclusions.
Unfortunately, those who value the second system to this extent are in the minority, as the majority of Americans unconsciously prefer the comforting languor of “System 1” and to let past precedence and desire for instant gratification guide their lives and decisions over long-term skepticism and the search for the latest truth. This, combined with generational or cultural “cognitive dissonance” – or the idea, per O’Shea, that “no matter what evidence is shown to you, you will discount the evidence and stick with your belief,” even if that belief stemmed from “System 1” – made the American people a prime target for a trolling unlike the free world had ever seen before.
The more I listened to the professor’s speech and read on about the IRA and its tactics, the more impressed I became in their success. And the more impressed I became, the more enraged I became with my own countrymen. I sat there in disbelief for nearly two hours, wondering how and why this could have happened to us, the greatest nation on earth.
Because, all sarcasm and political nonsense aside, 2016 was your fault. You the people are to blame for your own incompetence, your inability to see past the lies and dramatic headlines, and your willingness to become triggered and outraged at every little meme that came your way onto your feeds, frothing at the mouths like dogs with rabies as you fought each other in the comments section and on the streets. What could have been civil discussion and a concentrated effort to fight the “fake news” became a chaotic mess to silence your opposites and embrace the lies with open arms, no matter where you stood or came from.
I am fully aware that not everyone in this country fell for this trap; I am too optimistic to be that demoralized. But enough of you did fall for it to make me scared for 2020. Because I am done with the simplification and the dumbing-down of this international crisis. Trump is not the enemy, nor is he the cause; he is a symptom, a result of an undeservedly successful raid of our civility and unity. He is indeed controversial regardless, but he should not be the looming threat over this next election. Because the real enemy is Russia, and the real cause of 2016 was your failure to make that second step forward toward the truth instead of backing off by two steps because finding that truth takes a little more mental effort.
As I tried to recover from this revelation of a class, I asked O’Shea himself afterwards for his own thoughts on 2016. They were not far from the disconcerting truth.
“…you think you need to not like some other group or political party based on what you’ve heard in the media or news, and you realize we’ve all been played,” he told me. “The Russians have put out information specifically to get us to dislike someone else here in the United States.”
Played, indeed. Played like a f***ing fiddle.
The time is now to learn from 2016 and from our fundamental flaws and keep a watchful eye on our
former current enemy and their next moves concerning 2020. They will try this again, this time with even more trolls in play and greater stakes on the line. The choice this time should not be whether to dump Trump or “four more years,” but rather between using our brains or our mouths to greater effect.
2016 was a tragedy in every sense of the word, a political low that scarred the reputation of Western democracy and threatened to trample the patriotic resilience that rose from the tragedies of 2001 and international threats to our way of life. You now have an opportunity to make a comeback in 2020, to restore that resilience, and to “upset” those who sought to divide us through our innate idiocy with a renewed sense of unity and intellect. Because if you fail us again, 2016 will become more than a tragedy: it will become the beginning of the end.