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When the Mueller Report was released, Americans were shown the depths of foreign interference in our election process. The hearings—meant to examine, interpret, and debate the findings—were aired to help Americans understand the scope of the external meddling in our democracy. What the airing actually portrayed, however, was a partisan back-and-forth where much of the insidious manipulation of social media was lost in translation.
Americans were looking to identify an obvious act of manipulation, but there were no Watergate “plumbers,” there was no physical ballot manipulation, there were just hacked email accounts and fake social media accounts. The effect this had was intangible, but far-reaching. It affected the voting public’s psyche, and this is difficult to enumerate.
It is indisputable, however, to deny the concerted efforts of Russia and other foreign forces to influence the US election process and the general cohesion of the country. In his testimony on Capitol Hill on July 24, Robert Mueller emphasized the magnitude of this foreign meddling. “Over the course of my career, I have seen a number of challenges to our democracy. The Russian government’s effort to interfere in our election is among the most serious, and as I said on May 29th, this deserves the attention of every American.”
One challenge is how difficult it is for busy Americans to allocate the time and effort to fully process the scope and detail in the Mueller report. Painting a straight line from Wikileaks and Facebook to the election of Trump is not a simple process.
What is clear is the effect these internet incursions have had in polarizing our nation. These foreign efforts have achieved the result they desire, destabilizing the country by dividing its people. Americans are at odds with each other, and it seems less likely every day that these divisions will heal. This polarization is evident in a 2018 study done by PRRI. The data revealed that “Overwhelming majorities of Democrats (90%) and Republicans (87%) have an unfavorable opinion of the opposing party, including majorities who have a very unfavorable view of the other party (53% vs. 58%).”
It is becoming harder and harder for voters to find a middle ground. Americans feel strongly about their party’s platform and associated issues and foreign influences are able to exploit these easily defined party lines, feeding into the growing partisan gap. To understand this, it is critical to look at these efforts at the ground level and observe the work of these external influences as seen on social media.
The House Intelligence Committee released scores of advertisements with Russian origins found on Facebook and Twitter from 2015 to 2017. The committee found that over 11.4 million Americans were exposed to these advertisements promoted by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian owned, and Kremlin-linked organization that worked to influence American politics. This content created by the IRA is intended to prey on American emotions and increase tensions.
Many of the advertisements appeal to the growing anti-immigration sentiment in the country. A post from a Facebook page named “Secured Borders” includes a picture of a border patrol badge next to a road sign that reads “Invaders Not Allowed.” An advertisement from a group named “Being Patriotic” displays a picture of tattooed Hispanic men in what appears to be prison cells with the words “Obama Voters” written over them. The text accompanying the advertisement details a false narrative about criminals. There are countless advertisements meant to stoke anti-immigration sentiments, islamophobia, and racial tensions in the US.
The most nefarious advertisements are written in Spanish, intended to dissuade Hispanic voters. One includes a long list of identifications that will be required at the polls, including proof of citizenship, social security cards, birth certificates, driver’s license, driving record, and other documents—none of which are actually required. Other posts encourage voters to avoid long lines at the poll by casting votes via text message, a deceptive tactic telling people they can use their cell phones to vote. The intentions are clear. These ads are meant to sow discontent and reduce voter turnout among the American population.
Foreign entities are able to reach into the American psyche and encourage citizens to hate their own neighbors. This goal of division is made clear in an Instagram post by “southern.rebel.pride,” a Russian-owned account, with an image of a confederate flag captioned “Confederacy secedes, more than half of all states will join it.” While these Russian “troll farms” may not succeed in causing a second Southern secession, they are reaching Americans with a message of hate and division.
Beyond those that can be linked with the IRA and Russia, there are countless other examples of foreign-run social media spreading disinformation under the guise of patriotism. Judd Legum of Popular Information uncovered a Facebook page with 170,000 followers called “Police Lives Matter”. The group posts content advocating for American police and a broader right-wing agenda, including plenty of pro-Trump material. Though the page centers around “American patriotism” content, it is run from Kosovo. This site was part of a large network of Kosovar right-wing Facebook groups catering to US police.
Other Facebook groups owned by the Russian IRA show support for black rights movements, Islamic solidarity, and refugees. These pages, which promote more left-wing content are not in line with the right-wing material posted in support of Trump and the GOP. This duplicity, from the same origin as the right-wing pages, reveals the overarching theme of these disinformation campaigns. Injecting confusion and discord into the American voting public weakens the democratic process, and in turn, the nation. It also creates an unnavigable sea of media where Americans are unable to determine the origin or purpose of the content.
Emerson T. Brooking, a fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council addresses an added potential result of these foreign efforts, “There is a real danger that Russian interference — and the suspicion of Russian interference — will hang over the primary like a storm cloud, poisoning debate and infuriating progressive activists.”
As elected officials and candidates reference or identify potential foreign influence, Americans will become skeptical of the authenticity of any claim, creating a fog amongst voters going into an election. Distrust of the media and government are commonplace in the US and the divisiveness of these foreign efforts is further weakening the little trust left.
Media oversaturation and negative campaigning have been proven to affect political participation. As the media becomes more obsessed with Russian interference, it runs the risk of providing a secondary benefit to the foreign meddlers. Not only does the content sway voter opinion and divide Americans, but it may also lower turnout at the polls and create political apathy. The American voter today is confronted with an unprecedented and confusing web of media to consume, and staying involved in the political sphere is becoming more complex.
What can be done about this? It is near impossible to combat a decentralized foreign disinformation effort on social media. Even with the exposure and removal of thousands of these foreign-run pages, Americans are still being inundated with fraudulent material. While it may be unfeasible to eliminate all disinformation, it is possible for Americans to ignore media with clear divisive intent.
Regardless of party affiliation, Americans should be aware of, and resist, foreign attempts to affect our political sphere. Though people may not agree with other party platforms, it is imperative that citizens focus on the importance of preventing foreign nations from creating further division, spreading disinformation, and weakening the democratic process.