“So now the question becomes: how did Russia know to target African American voters, and especially in certain key states,” asked popular #Resistance pundit Amy Siskind in response to a New York Times article claiming Russian social media trolls targeted Sanders supporters and Black voters during the 2016 election.
“I think we’ll get our answers in the coming months from the Mueller probe,” Siskind speculated.
Well that’s a mighty good question there, Amy, and I think the answer is pretty obvious. Clearly Russia knew to target African American voters because Donald Trump called his boss Vladimir Putin and told him about America’s secret racial issues, which nobody in any foreign country could ever know about on their own. Then it was a simple matter of sending the trolls of St Petersburg’s Internet Research Agency to trick Black people into thinking that the American political system hasn’t been working for them, thereby ensuring the defeat of the rightful heir to the presidential throne, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It’s not disenfranchised voters’ fault that Hillary’s coronation failed to take place, it’s the fault of Russian memes on social media which confused their silly heads about who they wanted to vote for!
Or, alternate theory: everything about that question is immensely stupid.
This whole story is unbelievably idiotic. Not just because it’s based on a report by a private cybersecurity company that was founded by an NSA veteran, a company which would have every incentive to bend its findings in the most sensational way possible to attract clients with a viral new “bombshell” story about Russian election meddling. Not just because it infantilizes voters by implying that a smattering of cutesy memes deprived them of independent agency and caused the failure of Hillary Clinton’s historically awful presidential campaign. Not just because of the sleazy gaslighting element inherent in a narrative which insinuates that a populace meant to elect a different candidate but got confused. By far the dumbest thing about this story is the implicit suggestion that only Russian propaganda was at play during the 2016 election, and no other propaganda.
It’s often claimed that the dastardly Russians had a $1.2 million monthly budget for US social media influence in the lead-up to the 2016 election, but that’s false. As Aaron Maté noted back in February, this figure actually covers the Russian troll farm’s total operating budget, which was for “domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” So the actual monthly budget was some thousands of dollars, and most of the troll farm’s posts weren’t even about the election. Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion campaign budget and the untold billions of dollars worth of free mass media coverage she received, and even if everything we’re being told about Russia’s “influence campaign” is completely true, that’s a microscopic drop in the bucket.
FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver, a fairly reliable establishment loyalist, tweeted today about the new Russia report saying “If you wrote out a list of the most important factors in the 2016 election, I’m not sure that Russian social media memes would be among the top 100. The scale was quite small and there’s not much evidence that they were effective.”
“For instance, this story makes a big deal about a (post-election) Russian social media disinformation campaign on Bob Mueller based on… 5,000 tweets? That’s **nothing**. Platform-wide, there are something like 500,000,000 tweets posted each day,” Silver continued.
What fraction of overall social media impressions on the 2016 election were generated by Russian troll farms? 0.1%? I'm not sure what the answer is, but suspect it's low, and it says something that none of the reports that hype up the importance of them address that question.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) December 18, 2018
For all the fearmongering we see in the mass media about “Russian propaganda”, propaganda from Russia actually constitutes an almost nonexistent percentage of the media westerners consume which is designed to influence the way they think, act and vote. You can go your whole life without ever encountering any propaganda that was cooked up by the Kremlin, yet every day you are surrounded by screens, billboards and literature aimed at manipulating you into supporting the corporatist oligarchy that rules the nation you live in. The only reason anyone thinks Russian psyops have any kind of meaningful influence on people’s minds is because the mass media have been shrieking about it day in and day out for two years without ever contrasting it with the rest of the propaganda they consume.
But within all the hysterical hand-wringing about Russian propaganda there is an important admission: these mass media talking heads are all openly acknowledging that there exists a science for manipulating the minds of the public, and that it is very effective. Now if they could only admit that they are the world’s greatest practitioners of this science, they’d be telling the full story.
Of course, that’s the part of the story they’ll never tell you. They tell you their concern is that Russians are trying to manipulate your mind with propaganda, but really their concern is that they want to be the only ones manipulating your mind with propaganda. They tell you Russian propaganda is so dangerous that it’s necessary to censor the internet and hide all narratives which aren’t in line with the ruling establishment in order to protect democracy, but really all they want is to have full control of the narratives you consume. This is evidenced in the article by the Washington Post which kicked off this latest round of Russia panic, which reports the following:
The report expressed concern about the overall threat social media poses to political discourse within nations and among them, warning that companies once viewed as tools for liberation in the Arab world and elsewhere are now threats to democracy.
“Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike,” the report said.
Of all the absolute mountains of propaganda produced every election cycle, we're supposed to believe the minuscule fraction of Russian stuff (probably .000001% of total propaganda produced) was somehow decisive. No one has *ever* explained how that even remotely makes sense.
— Michael Tracey (@mtracey) December 17, 2018
There does indeed exist a science for manipulating the minds of the people. It is indeed very effective, and it has been developed, refined and perfected for over a century. Propaganda works, and even establishment mouthpieces like the New York Times and the Washington Post admit it. Think powerful people in your own country aren’t using it on you? Think again.
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