If You’re a Russian Twitter Bot, What’s On Your Mind?

In 1972, the German government founded the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a foundation and think tank in Washington. It was a gift to the American people in recognition of how the Marshall Plan helped rebuild Germany after World War 2.

The GMF has now created Hamilton 68, a site that allows “tracking Russian influence operations on Twitter”. (The name refers to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Papers No. 68, in which he discussed foreign meddling in our elections.) If you visit the new Disinformation Dashboard, you can see what stories and topics Russia is pushing today. From today’s “Top Themes”:

The networks we track are engaged in disinformation. They amplify legitimate reporting when the content suits them, and they promote alternative media outlets that seemingly specialize in the production of disinformation, whether or not the outlets are controlled by the Kremlin. These outlets assemble stories from found objects – bits of information that may have some basis in reality. The final product will leap to conclusions the components of the story do not necessarily support, but which promote a distorted view of events to the Kremlin’s benefit. This past week we have seen Kremlin-oriented Twitter promoting content regarding non-lethal U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. Reality: the U.S. Navy is helping construct a naval operations center at Ochakiv. The promoted stories at Stalker Zone and Strategic Culture turn that into: “The Entire Black Sea Coast of Ukraine Will Become a U.S. Military Base” and “U.S. Military to be Permanently Stationed on [Ukraine] Soil” respectively. Such stories are produced continuously. Their effectiveness is based on cumulative impact.

Side note: A coherent response to events on the weekend in Charlottesville has not yet emerged (as of August 16), though we continue to watch for one.

They’re currently monitoring 600 Twitter users, “properly understood as a network of accounts linked to and participating in Russian influence campaigns”, officially or unofficially, knowingly or unknowingly. These include:

  • Accounts likely controlled by Russian government influence operations.
  • Accounts for “patriotic” pro-Russia users that are loosely connected or unconnected to the Russian government, but which amplify themes promoted by Russian government media.
  • Accounts for users who have been influenced by the first two groups and who are extremely active in amplifying Russian media themes. These users may or may not understand themselves to be part of a pro-Russian social network. 

Today’s top Russian tweet, according to the Disinformation Dashboard, happens to be from the government-run RT network (formerly Russia Today):

Twitter user avatar @RT_com
Petition urges Trump to recognize Antifa as terrorists, reaches 55,000 signatures in 2 days https://t.co/toDhxusjll https://t.co/SV3TfIxVUD
Retweeted 566 times

The top Russia hashtags for the past 48 hours have been “antifa” (anti-fascist), “maga” (Make America Great…), “boston”, “syria”, “isis” and “altleft”. 

By the way, according to something called TwitterAudit.com, roughly 40% of DT’s 36 million followers are automated (i.e. fake).

Shining light on Russia’s propaganda efforts is a good thing, but I’d feel better if the president* and his minions were doing something to protect our upcoming elections. They’re not, because Russia is on their side.

Dashboard

Note: Whoever designed this graphic for GMF showing Putin releasing all those Twitter birds might as well have left the birds blue. Russia isn’t a Communist country anymore. It’s a right-wing kleptocracy, which is why the president* and other right-wing fanatics are so pro-Russia now. Putin leads the kind of government they aspire to.

Against Autocracy and Apathy

David Frum, who wrote speeches for George W. Bush, is one of the few right-wingers who haven’t swallowed Drump’s Kool-Aid. He now writes for The Atlantic, where he published an excellent article in January called “How To Build An Autocracy”. Its subtitle was “The preconditions are present in the U.S. today. Here’s the playbook Donald [Drump] could use to set the country down a path toward illiberalism”.

It’s a full-length magazine article that takes a while to load because of all the advertisements (unless your ad blocker is working), but it was very well-received and is still worth reading. Frum begins by imagining Drump being sworn in for his second term. America hasn’t gone completely over the edge but it’s not healthy either. The article concludes:

Those citizens who fantasize about defying tyranny from within fortified compounds have never understood how liberty is actually threatened in a modern bureaucratic state: not by diktat and violence, but by the slow, demoralizing process of corruption and deceit. And the way that liberty must be defended is not with amateur firearms, but with an unwearying insistence upon the honesty, integrity, and professionalism of American institutions and those who lead them. We are living through the most dangerous challenge to the free government of the United States that anyone alive has encountered. What happens next is up to you and me. Don’t be afraid. This moment of danger can also be your finest hour as a citizen and an American.

I was reminded of the article because Mr. Frum generated what’s called a “tweetstorm” on Twitter today. Up until a few months ago, I thought Twitter was basically a joke. I didn’t realize how interesting it is as a source of political news and commentary. So I created an account and now follow a small number of journalists, politicians and people with common interests (and a few comedians). Some of the journalists, including David Frum, offer what’s almost a running commentary on the day’s events. Here’s what he wrote today in 21 segments:

  1. [The Attorney General] Sessions story today is a sinister confirmation of central thesis of my autocracy article:
  2. Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous president because he harbors so many guilty secrets (or maybe 1 big guilty secret).
  3. In order to protect himself, Trump must attack American norms and institutions – otherwise he faces fathomless legal risk
  4. In turn, in order to protect their legally vulnerable leader, Republicans in Congress must join the attack on norms & institutions
  5. Otherwise, they put at risk party hopes for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to remake US government in ways not very popular with voters
  6. American institutions are built to withstand an attack from the president alone. But …
  7. … they are not so well-built as to withstand an attack from a conscienceless president enabled by a hyper-partisan Congress
  8. The peculiar grim irony in this case is that somewhere near the center of Trump’s story is the murky secret of Trump’s Russia connection
  9. Meaning that Trump is rendering his party also complicit in what could well prove …
  10. … the biggest espionage scandal since the Rosenberg group stole the secret of the atomic bomb.
  11. And possibly even bigger. We won’t know if we don’t look
  12. Despite patriotic statements from individual GOPers, as of now it seems that Speaker Ryan & Leader McConnell agree: no looking.
  13. So many in DC serenely promise that “checks and balances” will save us. But right now: there is no check and no balance.
  14. Only brave individuals in national security roles sharing truth with news organizations.
  15. But those individuals can be found & silenced. What then? We take it too much for granted that the president must lose this struggle
  16. The “oh he’s normal now” relief of so many to Trump’s Feb 28 speech revealed how ready DC is to succumb to deal making as usual.
  17. As DC goes numb, citizen apathy accumulates …
  18. GOP members of Congress decide they have more to fear from enforcing law against the president than from ignoring law with the president
  19. And those of us who care disappear down rabbit holes debating whether Sessions’ false testimony amounts to perjury or not
  20. Meanwhile job market strong, stock market is up, immigration enforcement is popular.
  21. I’m not counseling despair here. I don’t feel despair. Only: nobody else will save the country if you don’t act yourself.

Of course, it will be the height of irony if Drump, after claiming that he inherited a disaster from Obama, ends up getting credit for the economy improving and ISIS being defeated, but that’s the way American politics works. At the present moment, however, what especially struck me about Frum’s comments was the idea that citizen apathy, including my own, might be growing. 

I was able to attend a town hall by our Congressman, Rep. Leonard Lance (NJ-7), two weeks ago. He the typical relatively sensible Republican who went to Washington and now almost always follows the party line. At the town hall, he avoided straight answers, repeated some ridiculous Republican talking points and made promises he won’t keep, but at least he got an extended earful from hundreds of angry constituents.

But now that the excitement of the town hall has faded, and no big demonstrations like the Women’s March on Washington in the news, I’m beginning to feel a little numb myself. That’s natural, I suppose. Intensity will come and go, even as the outrages continue. In the meantime, however, if you’d like to do something positive, there’s a special election being held in a suburban district outside Atlanta to replace the lying creep who’s now running the Dept. of Health and Human Services.

Jon Ossoff is a Democratic candidate who could pull off an upset in Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District if he gets enough support and there’s enough of an anti-Drump backlash. Even if he doesn’t win, a close election will show Republicans like our Leonard Lance that their re-election isn’t assured. I made a donation today. You can too if you visit Mr. Ossoff’s campaign site.

Even if you’re not at peak emotional intensity right now, you can always spend a few dollars for an important cause. 

Idle Thoughts, Small Actions

As we get further away from that horrific night in November, most of us are probably thinking less about why the Electoral College went the way it did (go to hell, Comey!). We’re also thinking less about the way things might have been. Instead, we’re freaking out about what’s happening now and what’s coming our way.

I haven’t been to any marches or demonstrations yet, but like many of us, I’ve contacted my members of Congress more than ever before. Today I called one of our Senators, although he’s a Democrat, to thank him for delaying a committee hearing on one of T__’s dangerous cabinet selections and to encourage him to do whatever he can to stop the appointment of a racist ideologue as Attorney General (that’s the jerk even Republicans thought was unqualified to be a Federal judge).

People are saying that Congress is being inundated with complaints about the monster(s) in the White House, so it was reassuring that getting through to one of my Senator’s offices wasn’t easy. The line was busy at his office near me, so I called his office in Washington. I was about to leave a message when a recording said his voicemail was full and couldn’t take any more messages. So then I called his remaining office, which is in a less populated part of our state. A nice young woman immediately answered the phone. She assured me that she’d transmit my message to Washington.

Some activities are less immediately practical than contacting Congress. Fantasizing, for example. I’ve entertained the usual fantasies, of course, such as T___ suffering a debilitating stroke or a fatal fall down some White House stairs; a benign military coup leads to a do-over election; and my favorite, that very smart, very kind beings from outer space take control and put us on a more reasonable path, one that includes single-payer health insurance and a fix for global warming. I’ve had a few other fantasies too.

One is that Rupert Murdoch, the evil billionaire who will be 86 next month, finally kicks the bucket and a more reasonable mogul or two purchase The News Corporation and 21st Century Fox. That would inevitably lead to entities like Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post becoming reputable organizations again, cutting off the stream of Murdoch-owned right-wing propaganda that has poisoned our democracy in recent years.

Another is that the CEO of Twitter,  Jack Dorsey, known to Twitter-ites as “@Jack” and who has contributed to Democratic politicians, admits that allowing T___ to have an official Twitter account presents a clear and present danger to the rest of us. It would be fine to let Donnie tweet as much as any other deranged right-winger, but he shouldn’t have a verified account that identifies him as “@realDonaldT___” or “@POTUS” (the President). That way, whenever Donnie transmitted his latest lie or insult, it wouldn’t have any effect on anyone but a small circle of nitwits. Nobody could possibly believe it came from the actual President of the United States.

Yet another of my fantasies involves the U.S. Senate. There are now 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats or Independents in what used to be a relatively reputable legislative body. If three of those Republicans were to declare themselves Independents and vote with the Democrats, the Republicans would be the minority again. They’d only have the House of Representatives to play with. Of course, controlling the Senate wouldn’t allow the Democrats to get much done (that’s in the official rules), but they could make sure T___ and his allies did less damage.

Finally, now speaking of other people’s fantasies, I recently took a tiny step toward correcting the fantastic beliefs of the sorry individuals who inhabit the Fox News and Breitbart websites (Breitbart is the far-right, white nationalist outfit that tells T___ what to do). It’s extremely unpleasant to visit those two sites, so I don’t recommend this to everyone. But I now leave the occasional comment, just to let some of them know there’s a real world out here. It’s rather like descending into Plato’s cave and removing the chains from poor souls who have never seen the sun or the sky. It’s a very dirty job, but we’re living in times that require direct action.