Why Amer­ica is es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to Rus­sian trolls

The Week - - News -

Jenna Abrams was a Twit­ter nat­u­ral, said Ben Collins on The Daily Beast. Af­ter setting up her ac­count in 2014, she amassed nearly 70,000 fol­low­ers with her no-non­sense, of­ten funny ob­ser­va­tions on top­ics rang­ing from Kim Kar­dashian’s naked selfie to fem­i­nism. Her tweets went vi­ral and were picked up by lots of main­stream me­dia out­lets, in­clud­ing The Daily Tele­graph, which fea­tured one of her jokes about punc­tu­a­tion. To start with, she largely avoided pol­i­tics, but in the run-up to last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, she be­gan push­ing very di­vi­sive views on con­tentious is­sues such as the Con­fed­er­ate flag, seg­re­ga­tion and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment. And now we know why. Con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors work­ing with US so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies have con­firmed that Jenna Abrams, the free­wheel­ing Amer­i­can blog­ger, never ex­isted. Her ac­count was the cre­ation of em­ploy­ees at a Rus­sian gov­ern­ment-funded “troll farm” in St Peters­burg.

This is just one ex­am­ple of a much wider dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign by Moscow, said Mark Joseph Stern on Slate. Last week, the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee re­leased some of the roughly 3,000 po­lit­i­cal ads put out by a sin­gle troll farm linked to the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment be­tween 2015 and 2017. What’s “as­ton­ish­ing” about these ads, which reached mil­lions of Amer­i­cans on so­cial me­dia, is “how closely they mimic ac­tual con­ser­va­tive pro­pa­ganda” – by de­mon­is­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton as a pu­ta­tive en­abler of creep­ing Sharia and stir­ring up fears of an in­flux of vi­o­lent His­panic “il­le­gals”. They show that, as early as 2015, the Krem­lin “had not only iden­ti­fied the bur­geon­ing Trump base; it had learned how to ex­ploit its para­noias and prej­u­dices with near sur­gi­cal pre­ci­sion”.

Crit­ics have at­tacked Rus­sia for its med­dling, and blamed Sil­i­con Val­ley for fa­cil­i­tat­ing it, said Emily Parker in The New York Times, but no one forced Amer­i­cans to be­lieve these lies or to spread them. Alas, the US is par­tic­u­larly sus­cep­ti­ble to these tac­tics, said Stephen Marche in The New Yorker. Sim­i­lar ef­forts by Rus­sian trolls to in­flu­ence re­cent elec­tions in France, Ger­many and Canada failed to get any­where be­cause those coun­tries pos­sess, “in ev­ery mean­ing of the phrase, com­mon sense”. Amer­ica doesn’t have the same shared sense of re­al­ity. Its “an­cient faith in self-de­ter­mi­na­tion” holds that “ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to his or her own vi­sion of the uni­verse”. This guid­ing prin­ci­ple is the source of the coun­try’s dy­namism and ca­pac­ity for rein­ven­tion, but also, alas, of its “gulli­bil­ity”.

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