As if we Americans were not doing a good enough job of hating each other on our own, recent news reports tell us Russian trolls are using social media to divide us even more along racial and political lines.
Thanks, folks, but we don’t need the help.
Mostly, we have heard about hackers and trolls stealing emails from Democrats, attacking voter registration lists and voting machines, or running a con game of fake news and fake identities planted on social media by automated bots.
For the past year, various media have brought reports and speculation of whether and how Russia “hacked” the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But Russia’s meddling in U.S. affairs via social media has extended way beyond the presidential race — even, in one example, to Pokemon Go.
ITEM: Facebook disclosed in early September that it had identified more than 3,000 ads, totaling $100,000 worth of ads on divisive social issues such as race, gay rights, gun control and immigration, all purchased by a shadowy St. Petersburg-based company called Internet Research Agency, a known Russian “troll factory.” The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to some 470 fake accounts and pages the company said it had shut down, according to an announcement posted by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer.
ITEM: An alleged IRA-linked group known as “Black Fist” paid personal trainers in several cities to run self-defense classes for African-Americans, CNN reports. Pitched under such slogans as “Be ready to protect your rights … Let them know that black power matters,” the group apparently was aimed to stoke fear and gather contact information of Americans who may be easy marks for their propaganda, according to CNN.
ITEM: “Blacktivist,” a social media account posing as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, publicized protests but appears to have been little more than a website operated by Russian agent to interfere with US politics.
So apparently was another IRA-linked operation that exploited the GPS-linked Pokemon Go, according to CNN, by directing players to find characters at locations of alleged police brutality. As if the politicization of the NFL were not bad enough, Pokemon fans should be particularly enraged.
Yet, as new as the digital-age technology may be, Russian exploitation of America’s civil rights movement goes back the early days of the Cold War. “Whataboutism” is the label given to the Soviet ploy of responding to complaints about its human rights violation with “What about your lynchings of Negroes in the American South?”
The Soviet propaganda had the desired effect in the West. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained in the 1950s that civil rights unrest was “ruining our foreign policy” and predicted its impact in Asia and Africa would be “worse for us than Hungary was for the Russians.”
Dulles, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and numerous other leaders recognized an important lesson: Civil rights is an issue for our domestic peace and national security, too.
So why would Putin be reviving that ploy now? For the same reason that our intelligence services believe he approved the hacking of last year’s elections in an attempt to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances and help Republican Donald Trump. He wanted, as journalist Julia Ioffe put it earlier this year, exactly what we have seen, “Captain Chaos in the White House.”
As Masha Gessen, Russian journalist and author of books on Russia and Putin, has said, Putin cares less about what Americans think than what his own Russian people think of him — and a clear majority of them appear to be just fine with Putin’s bold attempts to restore Russia to its former glory — to “make Russia great again,” in his own Russian way, which means making Western democracy look weak, confused, unstable and unreliably vulnerable to a new leadership every four years that may not know what its’ doing.
That last part sounds familiar. Fortunately, our institutions, including courts, the Constitution and our free press, remain strong despite President Trump’s grumpy Twitter tirades.
If making us look weak is his goal, it is up to us — all Americans — to make sure he fails. On the web, that means keeping a watchful eye for fake news and phony movements — from the left or the right — that seek to exploit racial, social and political differences, not heal them. If you see something that looks suspicious, just delete it, don’t retweet it.
Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.