Many of you have probably seen this Rolling Stone story on Russian trolls. It’s an interesting read.
Of course, the purpose of The Smokey Wire has always been quite the opposite of sowing divisions- it’s all about helping understand each other and learning from each other.
But what struck me about this article is that it says:
Russia’s goals are to further widen existing divisions in the American public and decrease our faith and trust in institutions that help maintain a strong democracy. If we focus only on the past or future, we will not be prepared for the present. It’s not about election 2016 or 2020…
Rather, the IRA encourages us to vilify our neighbor and amplify our differences because, if we grow incapable of compromising, there can be no meaningful democracy. Russia has dug in for a long campaign. So far, we’re helping them win.
It almost sounds like it would be OK to vilify and amplify differences (V&AD) if someone had more noble objectives. I can’t think, though, of what those might be. Since our own political parties are the champions of vilifying and amplifying, the whole thing befuzzles my brain (are both parties Russian fronts?). Or interest groups or…just random real people on Twitter? Can we imagine an answer to “It’s OK to say mean things about people because ……”. And fill in the blank. Not “I disagree with or fear the effects of policies” but “those people are ignorant and/or malevolent and/or unethical and/or not “real” Christian, Democrats, feminists, environmentalists, climate scientists or whatever.”
In a free society, we must accept that bad actors will try to take advantage of our openness. But we need to learn to question our own and others’ biases on social media. We need to teach — to individuals of all ages — that we shouldn’t simply believe or repost anonymous users because they used the same hashtag we did, and neither should we accuse them of being a Russian bot simply because we disagree with their perspective. We need to teach digital civility. It will not only weaken foreign efforts, but it will also help us better engage online with our neighbors, especially the ones we disagree with.
I’m not sure “teaching” will help, as long as incivility is rewarded with clicks and $. Here’s an interesting book that talks about some of the motivations, called “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by Jaron Lanier.
Not that TSW is anywhere near perfect, but we try to provide a safe environment for discussion. I’d like to thank all the people who approve posts, and people who call others out on their behavior, as well as those people who are civil. Whatever success we have in the anti- V&AD campaign we owe to you all. If you have ideas as to how we could improve, please make suggestions below. Election seasons make for prime troll habitat, and one is coming up next year.