Those blurry, static-y, loathsome, unwelcome specters that have haunted our recent elections are back. Russian trolls have returned.
Facebook announced Tuesday that it removed accounts linked to Russian state actors who were seeking to spread false stories related to the 2020 U.S. election.
The accounts were linked to the St. Petersburg troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, that played a large part in Russia’s attempt to interfere in the 2016 election. They were shut down after a tip to Facebook from the FBI about a purported progressive news site that the feds said appeared to be pumping out Russian propaganda. Twitter also took down accounts related to the disinformation attacks.
This is a twist on the 2016 effort. The phony news site, peacedata.net, was sharing bogus news articles about everything from racial injustice to the Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden and vice presidential pick Kamala Harris.
The articles were crafted to inflame division. The tactic included stories intended to push Democrats to the left and to drive a wedge between the more moderate and progressive wings of the party, including stories painting the Democratic nominees as closet conservatives who intend to shut out any attempt at progressive action.
Lest you think these spectral voices are relatively powerless, recall that in the last presidential election, according to the Mueller report, “the IRA’s social media accounts reached tens of millions of U.S. persons. Individual IRA social media accounts attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.” Facebook found the 2016 effort by the IRA made more than 80,000 posts, and those posts reached between 29 million and 126 million people.
Though it would be wrong to call any of this good news, there are bits of sunshine piercing these grim phantasms. The effort was caught in its early stages and hadn’t gained a lot of traction. The flip side is that we don’t know what other schemes remain to be revealed.
The 2016 apparitions sought to create a sense of legitimacy by organizing and promoting dozens of political rallies, while trolls posed as American grassroots activists. Local people were engaged to act as event coordinators without knowing the nature of the “person” promoting the event. In a variation of that tactic, the IRA this time sought to engage inexperienced American journalists, reaching out to unwitting freelancers to write for this fake news site on topics selected by the Russians to provide a cloak of legitimacy for its shady endeavors.
So how do we exorcise these poltergeists? U.S. intelligence organizations and social media companies were caught off guard in 2016 but seem to be alert now and devoting more resources to the effort. Congress should provide funding dedicated to these efforts going forward. Russia is working harder to find ways to move wraithlike into the American social media space. We don’t expect that to end with this election.
As for individual Americans, think before you share or retweet. You don’t want to be possessed by the Russian phantoms, and if you share things without vetting them, you might be. In 2016, Twitter accounts associated with the IRA were quoted by news outlets and public figures and were retweeted by political figures up to and including Donald Trump.
It is time to drive the Russian shade from our home.