Putin has bag of dirty tricks, army of ‘bots’ for ’18

Boston Herald - - OPINION - By KATH­LEEN PARKER Kath­leen Parker is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Talk back at let­ter­stoed­i­tor@ boston­her­ald.com.

WASH­ING­TON — If you want to know whether Democrats will take back the House and/or Se­nate in Novem­ber, just ask Rus­sia.

Or rather, ask the Rus­sian trolls who have tri­umphed in dis­sem­i­nat­ing real “fake news” to in­flu­ence U.S. elec­tions. They cred­i­bly did so in 2016 by cre­at­ing a more-fa­vor­able elec­toral en­vi­ron­ment for Don­ald Trump. And, re­port­edly, they’re de­ter­mined to make trou­ble again in the 2018 midterms.

In the mean­time, Rus­sian “bots” — ap­pli­ca­tions that per­form an au­to­mated task — were help­ing Trump once again by cre­at­ing mo­men­tum for the Feb. 2 re­lease of the so-called “Nunes memo,” the four-page brief from the U.S. House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee chair­man al­leg­ing sur­veil­lance abuses by FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

To do this, Rus­sian op­er­a­tives cre­ated a #Re­leaseTheMemo cam­paign on Twit­ter, which quickly went vi­ral and cre­ated a sense of ur­gency and im­port to the com­mit­tee’s find­ings — at least those by Repub­li­can mem­bers. Trump, who has fi­nal author­ity over such things, re­fused to ap­prove re­lease of a Demo­cratic re­but­tal. Ap­par­ently, the lat­ter was far more de­tailed than the Repub­li­can ver­sion and, ac­cord­ing to the ad­min­is­tra­tion, could be harm­ful. Per­haps.

But, also, Trump likely wanted the Nunes memo re­leased for its value in cast­ing doubt on the FBI’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into pos­si­ble col­lu­sion be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign. And, un­doubt­edly, Trump and his Repub­li­can sup­port­ers want to end the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as soon as pos­si­ble, dis­cred­it­ing the agency in the process. Not that the agency needed much help. With two agents ex­chang­ing ro­man­tic texts and emails that also ex­pressed con­tempt for Trump, it would be fairly easy for the pre­dis­posed to con­clude that the en­tire in­ves­ti­ga­tion was con­tam­i­nated.

Thus far, the memo has suc­ceeded only in dam­ag­ing trust be­tween the FBI and Congress, pos­si­bly hin­der­ing future shar­ing of clas­si­fied ma­te­rial. As Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee mem­ber An­gus King (IMaine) pointed out Tues­day on MSNBC’s “Morn­ing Joe,” the Se­nate and House pan­els are the only watch­dogs of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. If the FBI or the CIA refuse to share, “then no­body’s watch­ing.”

The ex­tent to which Rus­sia’s cy­ber-an­tics have ma­nip­u­lated Amer­i­can thought is of no small con­cern or con­se­quence. But when nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults get at least some of their news from so­cial me­dia, the po­ten­tial reach of bad ac­tors is in­cal­cu­la­ble. Face­book and YouTube lead the pack in sheer num­bers of users, ac­cord­ing to a 2017 Pew Re­search Cen­ter study. Sixty-six per­cent of U.S. adults use Face­book, with 45 per­cent get­ting news on the site.

YouTube can boast that 58 per­cent of U.S. adults watch its clips, but only 18 per­cent rely on the video em­po­rium for news. Rel­a­tively few adults use Twit­ter — just 15 per­cent — but nearly all who do (74 per­cent) get their news from the lit­tle blue bird. Although its base is far smaller than Face­book, its vi­ral ca­pac­ity is in­cal­cu­la­ble. One need only think of the global reach of the #Me­Too move­ment that spread in a mat­ter of vir­tual nanosec­onds.

No one has better un­der­stood this in­fec­tious power than Trump. Crazy like a fox, he knows that he can im­print on the minds of his fol­low­ers far more quickly than he could by tra­di­tional means — and with­out ac­count­abil­ity. While Pres­i­dent Obama used Twit­ter to fundraise and con­vey cam­paign in­for­ma­tion, Trump uses his ac­count to ad­vance his opin­ion, taunt his en­e­mies, ex­act re­venge and, strate­gi­cally, to mis­in­form. Sort of the way Rus­sia does.

No won­der he ad­mires Rus­sia Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, with whom he spoke by phone on Mon­day. What do you sup­pose they talk about? The “Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion?” Hash­tags for future mind-melding ops? Midterm elec­tions?

Those are just around the cor­ner. Di­rec­tor of Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Daniel Coats, tes­ti­fy­ing Tues­day be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, warned that Rus­sia con­sid­ers its ef­forts to dis­rupt the 2016 elec­tion a suc­cess and likely sees 2018 as an­other op­por­tu­nity. While con­gres­sional lead­ers are hop­ing to pres­sure so­cial me­dia groups into be­com­ing more re­spon­si­ble, the bur­den for fail-saf­ing our demo­cratic elec­tion process falls to cit­i­zens to be­come more dis­cern­ing as news con­sumers.

Un­for­tu­nately, the minds of so­cial-me­dia users are likely be­com­ing more, not less, mal­leable. De­mo­graph­i­cally, the largest in­crease in news users on so­cial me­dia has been among older, non­white, less-ed­u­cated peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Pew. Ex­cept for the non­white part, this would seem a boon to the GOP, whose con­stituents, though whiter than the DNC’s, tend to be older and slightly less ed­u­cated than Democrats.

Trump once ex­claimed, “I love the poorly ed­u­cated!” Doubt­less, Rus­sia does, too.

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