Russian Trollishness (or Not) on The Smokey Wire

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.

5 thoughts on “Russian Trollishness (or Not) on The Smokey Wire”

  1. The extremes in BOTH Parties have their conspiracy theories, and those people seem very proud of the efforts at misinformation, to support their Parties. Sure, the Democrats like to talk about clearcuts, old growth harvesting and bad collaboration but, the Republicans seem far worse, regarding forest management ( or lack of ). Republicans especially like to point at California wildfires as examples of what they claim. They want to blame it all on Governor Newsome and serial litigators for the fires and sickly forests. The good thing is that it is very easy to marginalize their false comments.

    This process of weeding out the bad actors and loud extremists (on both sides) is awkward and painful but, that is where education (under collaboration) must expose those folks for the shams that they are. You often see both extremes on Facebook, making false comments about the Forest Service, and forests, in general.

  2. I’d say the Russian troll factories should take a back seat to plain old all American online viciousness. Thankfully one need not engage online to benefit. I enjoy and am informed by reading about forest management. The Smokey wire is thankfully more tame than many places.

    I read an interesting article over the weekend about the future of the online world and what might come next. It’s behind a paywall but I’d be happy to cut and paste in it’s entirety but don’t want to run afoul of copyright law.

    • Thanks Som, this is well worth a read.

      I think it falls under fair use
      so will post if people have trouble. I could read it and usually can’t read NY Times articles. Please let me know in comments.

      ” After the social media age is over, we’ll have the opportunity to rebuild our damaged public sphere by creating digital public places that imitate actual town halls, concert venues and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. These are places where people can socialize or debate with a large community, but they can do it anonymously. If they want to, they can just be faces in the crowd, not data streams loaded with personal information.”

      I think we don’t have to wait until the social media age is over. I’ve also found that some folks make content-free remarks not weeded out by the spam filter (which is OK) but also asking “what evidence do you have to support your claim?” may also screen out people who want to disparage but not discuss.

      Anyway, I really like the words they used. I guess that’s a role of TSW is to “curate digital public space.”

      • Consensus is very hard to reach when there are people knowingly lying about forest issues. Some of those people consider themselves to be ‘counter-balances’, especially on politically-slanted venues. With social media, we will always have those “useful idiots”. who repeat the known lies as truth. They often aren’t corrected by more knowledgeable people in their camp. Personally, I call out people on both sides, when they add misinformation, misdirection, obfuscation and false controversy.

  3. Comrades/товарищи,

    I see that jig is up. Yes, I am to admit: sole purpose of my prior appearances here here is to provoke needless argument, draining of Wilderness defender his precious bodily fluids. Rather, is sensibly to be recognized that hero Wilderness defender are correct follower of Dzerzhinsky ideology, as such are right in all respect, exceptionally so in case of diabolical, two-wheeled locust mountain velocipede. Reason for subterfuge: Howard Zahniser failed to join Fifth Tendency of Trotskiist Vanguard in 1932, and so on orders from Moscow reputation is to be discredit in front of all. I am to ask for forgiveness. Спасибо.


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