The front page
is dominated by "Russian Trolls Helped Fracture the Women's March."
Yes, there's also the threat of cruise ships on Lake Superior — blogged in the previous post
— and something about James Cameron and Kanye West — as if they needed some man stuff to balance the sea of pussy hats.
Why take us back to the Women's March? Did they actually learn something new about Russian troll farms? I'm very skeptical of alarmism about Russian troll farms. If we — we individual Americans — can't handle random snark from varied unknown sources, how can we live with the internet? Who cares if some foreigners are writing crap intended to deceive us into feeling more roiled up and divided than we're able to do damned well on our own, often with the nudging of the New York Times?
"Out of Lock Step" — I don't think I've ever seen "lockstep" used in a positive way like that. Saying people are in "lockstep" is generally a putdown, as if people don't have a mind of their own, but are following along in formation, like soldiers under orders. Did the organizers want a march that looked more military and disciplined? I think the pink hats and the common cause created plenty of uniformity, and within that, in America, you want individuality — real women, each with their own story.
But let's read this text, which is by Ellen Barry, a NYT writer who "covers mental health." Well, that makes sense. We're talking about the rearrangement and derangement of minds. But it's kind of paranoid to attribute these mental processes to devious, faceless Russians!!!! Are women so fragile and malleable that snarky words, read on line, are a significant factor in whatever makes them fail to coalesce into one lockstep mass? Without those Russians!!! we'd be a revolution?
This is a long article, and the answer to my questions is nowhere near the top. The first line is: "Linda Sarsour awoke on Jan. 23, 2017, logged onto the internet, and felt sick." So, it's a personal story. I remember the name Linda Sarsour, one of the leaders of the Women’s March. She got talked about on Twitter: "In 15 years as an activist, largely advocating for the rights of Muslims, she had faced pushback, but this was of a different magnitude." So what? She was leading an important march, so she got talked about much more than before.
But let's worry about the Russians:
More than 4,000 miles away, organizations linked to the Russian government had assigned teams to the Women’s March. At desks in bland offices in St. Petersburg, using models derived from advertising and public relations, copywriters were testing out social media messages critical of the Women’s March movement, adopting the personas of fictional Americans.
I'm not worrying. This is innocuous, predictable, and just the usual bullshit we'll have to navigate if we're going to have the internet.
They posted as Black women critical of white feminism, conservative women who felt excluded, and men who mocked participants as hairy-legged whiners. But one message performed better with audiences than any other. It singled out an element of the Women’s March that might, at first, have seemed like a detail: Among its four co-chairs was Ms. Sarsour, a Palestinian American activist whose hijab marked her as an observant Muslim.
I assume the message "performed better with audiences" because it contained a fact that seemed relevant or worth considering.
Over the 18 months that followed, Russia’s troll factories and its military intelligence service put a sustained effort into discrediting the movement by circulating damning, often fabricated narratives around Ms. Sarsour....
I'm not sure what "fabricated narratives" refers to. Maybe imagining what her aims and intentions might be. Or does it mean made-up facts about her? The vagueness makes me suspicious about whether there is any real story here. Sarsour led a big march. We have to be able to talk about her. Who cares if Russian chaos-makers participated in what would have been an active, messy conversation anyway?
One hundred and fifty-two different Russian accounts produced material about her.
So a tiny number. Or is the NYT reader supposed to be aghast at the dimension of this operation? 152! Why isn't it 152 million? 152 sounds like something that one person could create.
Public archives of Twitter accounts known to be Russian contain 2,642 tweets about Ms. Sarsour....
That's nothing! 2,642 — who cares?! How many tweets about Sarsour came from accounts that were not Russian? We are not told.
The Women's March was, according to the article, a "fragile coalition to begin with," with co-chairs who were associated with Louis Farrakhan. That's a big problem quite apart from Russian troll farmers. But let's talk about Russian troll farmers — "a story that has not been told, one that only emerged years later in academic research." Okay, that suggests there is something new justifying the NYT treatment of this as the top story. This is what I want to know, so let's dig in:
For more than a century, Russia and the Soviet Union sought to weaken their adversaries in the West by inflaming racial and ethnic tensions. In the 1960s, K.G.B. officers based in the United States paid agents to paint swastikas on synagogues
and desecrate Jewish cemeteries. They forged racist letters, supposedly from white supremacists, to African diplomats.
Important, though old news.
They did not invent these social divisions; America already had them. Ladislav Bittman, who worked for the secret police in Czechoslovakia
before defecting to the United States, compared Soviet disinformation programs to an evil doctor who expertly diagnoses the patient’s vulnerabilities and exploits them, “prolongs his illness and speeds him to an early grave instead of curing him.”
Again, important, reminding us to be alert about stories that seem to aggravate divisions.
A decade ago, Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, oversaw a revival of these tactics, seeking to undermine democracies around the world from the shadows.
A decade ago....
Social media now provided an easy way to feed ideas into American discourse, something that, for half a century, the K.G.B. had struggled to do.... What effect these intrusions had on American democracy is a question that will be with us for years. It may be unanswerable.
That suggests you have nothing new right now. We'll never know the sources of the material we're seeing on the internet. We have to deal with it and keep our bearings as all sorts of people try to sway our minds, Russian or not.
The article-writer, Barry, concedes that Americans were already politically riled up, and that the divisions "would have been true without Russian interference." But, she says, Russians made "a persistent effort to make all of them worse."
What were these scary Russians like?
“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said [Artyom] Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities...
The job was not to put forward arguments, but to prompt a visceral, emotional reaction, ideally one of “indignation,” said Mr. Baranov, a psychoanalyst by training, who was assigned to write posts on Russian politics. “The task is to make a kind of explosion, to cause controversy,” he said.
See? It's part of the NYT "mental health" coverage. Do you think these poor Russians, writing for money, doing what they're told, really came up with important ways to control our emotions?
When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, [Baranov] said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart....
Well, at least these poor souls had a spark of humor and little feelings of success in game-playing. And they should exclaim Liberala razorvala about the NYT making their pitiful job into the top scary story of the day. But I'm not "torn apart" by the news of content creators noticing what's getting shared and liked. It's how the internet works. Is it okay to have the internet, or is it just too much for our feeble little minds to handle?
Feminism was an obvious target, because it was viewed as a “Western agenda,” and hostile to the traditional values that Russia represented, said Mr. Baranov...
“White feminism seems to be the most stupid 2k16 trend”
“Watch Muhammad Ali shut down a white feminist criticizing his arrogance”
“Aint got time for your white feminist bullshit”
“Why black feminists don’t owe Hillary Clinton their support”
“A LIL LOUDER FOR THE WHITE FEMINISTS IN THE BACK”....
See? That's all stuff that we need to be able to hear, think about, and deal with, and it doesn't matter whether it came from Russia or from some perfectly ordinary American man.
They posed as resentful trans women, poor women and anti-abortion women. They dismissed the marchers as pawns of the Jewish billionaire George Soros....
Just remember that people on the internet are not necessarily who they say they are. That's the most basic level of competence. We all have that. It's stupid to get outraged that people are posing as somebody else. That's the way it is. If we can't handle that, we can't have the internet.
Back to Sarsour. The article has detail about the attacks on her, and, we're told "Russian troll accounts were part of that clamor." Part of. Sarsour used the word “jihad” in a speech, and "To the Russian trolls, it was an opportunity." It was an opportunity to anyone writing on the internet.
The following week, Russian accounts dramatically increased their volume of messaging about Ms. Sarsour, producing 184 posts on a single day, according to Advance Democracy Inc....
So, a tiny number — 184. Or is that supposed to be a huge number? When the item is posts on the internet, I think a number like 184 million might sound like a lot. But 184 you're trying to alarm us about? If we're to be alarmed at 184 posts about Linda Sarsour using the word "jihad," we really don't know how to be on the internet.
It is maddeningly difficult to say with any certainty what effect Russian influence operations have had on the United States, because when they took hold they piggybacked on real social divisions. Once pumped into American discourse, the Russian trace vanishes, like water that has been added to a swimming pool.
That's why it's not "maddening." There's so much speech that the part that's from Russian troll farms doesn't matter. Some of it isn't that different from home-grown speech, and some of it is overwhelmed by better quality speech. I can see that the author Ellen Barry wants to characterize the Russian speech as adding a new or different element that catches on and changes the discourse, but she's identified nothing they've added that's different from the low-level bullshit we make on our own. Is some distinct Russian strain growing here? That sounds more like Cold War Era paranoia than anything happening now. We should wake up and take responsibility for how degraded and divided we've become in America. That Russians are watching, cheering it on, enjoying the chaos, and throwing in little barbs is a distraction. I don't see how it helps to get irked at them.
This creates a conundrum for disinformation specialists, many of whom say the impact of Russian interventions has been overblown.
All right! That's how I feel.
Yes! Thank you!
“It’s playing a trick on you,” said Dr. Rid, a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “You become a useful idiot if you ignore effective info ops. But also if you talk it up by telling a story, if you make it more powerful than it is. It’s a trick.”...
Yes! Exactly. The astute Dr. Rid is tucked away in the least likely to be read part of the article, but at least he's quoted.
Then the article returns to the story of Linda Sarsour, and finally we're told of some recent scholarship:
Data on Russian messaging around the Women’s March first appeared late last year in an academic journal
, where Samantha R. Bradshaw, a disinformation expert at American University, reviewed state interference in feminist movements.
She and her co-author, Amélie Henle, found a pattern of messaging by influential amplifier accounts
that sought to demobilize civil society activism, by pumping up intersectional critiques of feminism and attacking organizers.
Why would Russians want to "demobilize civil society activism"? What's their motivation? Why would they want to help preserve American civil society? Originally, this article was telling us the Russians were sowing discord, but it ends with a scholar who seems to believe the Russians are undermining our own sowers of discord. I don't believe that at all.
ADDED: The NYT wrote "lock step" as 2 words, but it's been one word — "lockstep" — since the mid-1800s. It's also often written with a hyphen — "lock-step."
The OED defines it as: "A marching step in which the toe of one person is brought as close as possible to the heel of the person in front." It's originally a military term, and it would be an incredibly annoying way to move — taken literally — outside of a military context.
But it has an extended or figurative use, as you see in these examples offered by the OED:
1963 7 Nov. 19/1 The prescribed lock-step of school life.
1972 18 Mar. 32/1 The break could occur if Ireland did not follow Britain into the EEC. For the republic marches in an economic lockstep with Britain....
2010 Atlanta Jrnl.-Constitution (Nexis) 30 Apr. a18 Even the so-called moderates go lock-step with the far right wing. There seems to be no hope for them.