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Monday, April 3, 2017

Peel the Skin Back from All the Lies

We've known for quite some time that pro-Trump, anti-Clinton articles, Twitter members, and Facebook posters have been fake, often paid by the Russian government. What we've learned over the last week or so, however, is that the extent of that perfidy may go beyond what we thought.

Russia had every ability to create fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and use a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, cybersecurity experts told the Senate panel Thursday. Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, said many social accounts during the election pushing questionable news looked just like real voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan.
“Part of the reason those bios had conservative, Christian, you know, America, all those terms in it, (is) those are the most common ones,” Watts said. “If you inhale all of the accounts of the people in Wisconsin, you identify the most common terms in it, you just recreate accounts that look exactly like people from Wisconsin.”
“So that way, whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple, because you see somebody and they look exactly like you,” Watts added. Even down to the pictures. When you look at the pictures, it looks like an American from the Midwest or the South or Wisconsin or whatever the location is.”
Warner told reporters Wednesday there were “upwards of 1,000 paid internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia, in effect, taking over series of computers, which is then called a botnet.” 

And we also know more about what those bots, as well as paid trolls, were doing. Leah McElrath explains from her own experience:

With these #MAGA account attacks, it was relatively easy to block them and move on — emotionally, at least, as the abuse they delivered was easy to deflect because “they” were not “people” with whom I believed I had values in common in the first place.
However, the rest of the abuse came from accounts purporting to be supporters of Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders. And these were “people” with whom I believed I shared common values and policy interests. Almost all of the accounts presented as men — mostly young and white — and used sexist and misogynistic tones and words. I was called “mom” and “grandma” as epithets by these “young men.” I was called every vile sexualized name you can imagine. For some reason that I did not understand at the time, they liked to call me a “vagina.” (I now believe non-native English — i.e. Russian — speakers wrote the algorithms controlling these bots and perhaps imagined “vagina” to be the equivalent of the c-word when hurled at a woman.) Not being conversant in the mechanisms of Russian psychological warfare techniques at the time, it never occurred to me that, like the #MAGA bots, these “Bernie Bro” accounts were actually bots too.
And the abuse from these accounts was much harder to dismiss. It went in further, emotionally speaking. The vitriol of the attacks felt like a painful betrayal. After all, “we” probably shared 99 percent of our political perspective; we just supported different candidates — which is something I said repeatedly in my attempts to appeal to reason with some of the attackers over the course of those long months. Nonetheless, even the mildest criticism of Sanders or comment of support for Clinton would bring out a swarm of these “Bernie Bro” accounts spouting off with abusive language and mockery.
It was not just me who experienced this — nearly every female supporter of Clinton I know who was outspoken on Twitter or Facebook received similar treatment. In addition, men of color who were vocal Clinton supporters were targeted in a similar way. The abuse was also highly targeted toward journalists, especially female journalists reporting on the primary and opinion journalists who were supportive of Clinton.
None of us knew we were being targeted for psychological warfare by a foreign power during these exchanges.

So, basically, many of the most tenacious Bernie supporters posting to social media during the election weren't really Bernie supporters and were actually part of the Russian plot. That hurts both the Bernie leftists and the Clinton left-centrists, because not only does it make Bernie supporters believe terrible things about Hillary, it makes Hillary supporters believe worse things about Bernie supporters because they appear more dickish than they are.

Apparently there's now a name for this, per Digby:

When I returned I read a story from NBC's Lester Holt on Facebook. It was shared by a friend. I was going to start replying to one of the commenters I knew. He was using a flawed premise with an Ayn Randian worldview. But since he does respond to facts and proof I did some research first. That's when I found dozens of "people" making the same type of comments.
Now this happens a lot when people are exposed to a steady diet of right-wing crap, but I noticed something different about these comments. The commenters were all pushing ideas that specifically benefited healthcare insurance companies. More research revealed 100's of similar accounts, making the same kind of comments, spread out over 5 months in the comments sections of various publications and websites. I had stumbled across a sockpuppet campaign for the healthcare insurance companies.
In my case the story was a real one from NBC and it was shared by a real friend. In the comments real people were discussing it, sincerely. I didn't recognize all of the people discussing this, but I thought they must be friends of friends. I was going to engage, but first I looked up one person I was going to respond to. She was from San Antonio, had a military background and was a Republican. Okay, I know people like that, and it made sense she would say these things. But for some reason I decided to look a level down, that's when I found out she was a construct. An avatar. A sockpuppet.
"These sockpuppets don't have any real impact. Besides, they only influence stupid people. Serious people spot them and ignore them."
--Savvy McSavvyington [He ignored the impact of talk radio too.]
First, do not dismiss sockpuppets as inconsequential
These sockpuppets can influence others, who then make the same points. These messages come via a channel that they trust, making them more powerful. Sockpuppets can be subtle, they don't have to start ideas to influence, just reinforce those of real voices.

Anyway, when you're on Twitter or Facebook and you find yourself in a strange argument, remember, you might just be arguing with a sockpuppet, kinda like in Hand to God -- only more Russian!