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Russian Trolls Want Us To Distrust Everything – And They’re Succeeding

When the internet was new, everyone was worried about the idea that “anyone could be anyone” online. It was a cautionary tale for parents, who feared sexual predators luring their children or a for lonely singles afraid that the person on the other side of that dating profile wasn’t who they claimed to be. Nowadays, we still deal with those fears, but they seem more distant when the people we interact with on social media seem so authentic and real.

But there are still people online pretending to be others, just now it’s not (just) predators, it’s Russian trolls who are using sophisticated technology and psychology to sow dissent and distrust in America…and it’s working.

In a new feature from Rolling Stone, authors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren go deep to explore how Russia’s Internet Research Agency is using seemingly innocuous fake social media accounts to win followers then very subtly sow dissent among Americans. These are the same people that Robert Mueller found to have interfered in the Election with a misinformation campaign in 2016. They haven’t slowed down and now they are worse.

We’re not talking about bots targeting MAGA folks here,  though those exist too, we’re talking about fake wannabe “influencers” targeted at liberal circles. The article focuses on two example accounts, @IAMTyraJackson and and @PoliteMelanie who sold themselves as  liberal black women whose posts gained viral status and then used their followings to push at existing cultural “stress points.”

This tactic is far more insidious and scary than mere propaganda or obviously fake news, because it preys on divisions already there in American society. The @PoliteMelanie accounts won followers with a tweet reading:

“My cousin is studying sociology in university. Last week she and her classmates polled over 1,000 conservative Christians. ‘What would you do if you discovered that your child was a homo sapiens?’ 55% said they would disown them and force them to leave their home.”

That seems fine but silly, at first, but dig in. It’s a false statement that is meant to paint Christians as ignorant and homophobic and thus cement liberal distrust in them. And that kind of attitude – of disgust and distrust has become incredibly prevalent on social media. Here’s Rolling Stone’s take:

Melanie was selling disgust. The Russians know that, in political warfare, disgust is a more powerful tool than anger. Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart.

These sorts of campaigns aren’t just limited to social issues, they target our divisions based on media and fandom as well. There were Russian trolls behind half of the dissent around The Last Jedi. They’re all over. These foreign agents see us fighting over things like pop culture and exploit it as a way to divide America further.

And it’s working. I’m so used to seeing immediate anger and distrust on social media that it’s nearly a cliche, but a depressing one. The bots may be fanning the flames, but it’s a bonfire that fandom, politics and influencer culture all add to.

I see it in fandom all the time, especially when fandom and social issues converge. I saw it over the holiday when Misha Collins and the cast of Supernatural endorse and initiative to have civil conversations at the holidays to find common ground with people you might disagree with. The response from fans to that was immediately negative and angry, expressing the exact kind of distrust and disgust in the “the other side” that prevents any sort of real conversation from ever happening. So much so that Collins felt he need to clarify and apologize for merely asking people to talk about difference.

Misha was making the exact point that the trolls working overtime for the Russian News Agency and others would like us to forget. Because it benefits Russia to keep America divided and angry, to have people who are on the same side attacking one another and considering anyone on the other side a devil unworthy of consideration.

I know it’s hard to not react in anger on social media. I do it all the time and there is definitely a place for anger and distrust of institutions right now because things are a mess. But if we stay angry and never listen or open up, things will get worse, not better.

The moral here is that we all need to think more critically and, yes, more compassionately on social media (and in life). Before you respond to a viral tweet meant to bait you into an ideological position, even if you agree with it, consider where it comes from and where the conversation goes from there.

(Via Rolling Stone, image: Pexels)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.