Russian Propaganda, Online Anonymity, and (Re)Establishing Accountability for What We Say

An eager reader gets me thinking about a connection between Russian efforts to hack American democracy and the Internet-Age-old topic of anonymity and identity in online discourse.

The Russians created thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter profiles, complete with bogus personal details and pilfered photos, pretending to be Americans spreading propaganda to influence the 2016 Presidential election. The Russians would have found such a propaganda operation impossible thirty years ago, when most Americans’ sources of information were either well-known media outlets with trained journalists held accountable by editorial boards concerned with corporate reputation or friends and neighbors with they interacted in person. To spread messages outside those channels, the Soviets would have had to drop leaflets from planes or buy a truckload of stamps and try starting chain letters. The airdrop would have failed immediately: we’d have heard planes coming and charged the Russians with littering. The chain letters would have had little more success: even the scant few who did not immediately disregard and dispose of a political letter from someone they did not know would still have little motivation to burn up their own stamps and envelopes. In the old days, chain letters needed to offer some financial gain to really catch fire.

Social media changes the propaganda calculus completely. The Russians spent a measly $100,000 to promote propaganda from fake Americans. With Facebook’s ridiculously easy targeting, the Russians could plunk their propaganda in front of willing dupes who could then do the Russians’ work for them at the trivial cost of clicking Share or Retweet. The Russian-favored occupant of the White House has lowered the cost of spreading such propaganda even further by demonstrating that there are no consequences to spreading false and vile content.

To make matters worse, we’re still not used to checking our sources. Back when the Soviets were the greatest foreign threat to American democracy, everything we heard and read either came from people we knew or came from reporters who were vetted regularly by their editors. Now the Russians can set up a propaganda website, then set up fake profiles and Facebook ads promoting that website, and far more Americans than they ever could have reached on paper lap it up and spread it around, lending their own credibility to this foreign propaganda.

Likes, Retweets, and Followers don’t reliably establish authority. The Internet has long since moved from escapist diversion for a wired few to integral component of most Americans’ information consumption; we thus need an information version of the nutrition label, a common method for letting people know what they are reading and who wrote it.

Could some agency that could issue a “Good Newskeeping” Seal of Approval? Even if we could reach consensus on a group we’d trust to rate sources (how about the American Library Association? Everyone trusts librarians, right?), would such an agency have time to review every news source on the Internet? Technologically, how would that agency issue and police its seals of approval?

Thinking about such an unwieldy system makes me harken back to my conservative roots: the best firewall against online propaganda will come from good practices from the bottom up, not ratings or regulations from the top down. We trust journalists not because the government licenses them but because the market creates penalties for journalists who do shoddy work. We trust our friends and neighbors because we know them and where they live and because they know that if they spread lies, we’ll see them again and again around town and have plenty of chances to catch them and rub their noses in those lies.

Anonymi online—whether just sneaky jerks who won’t share their real names or Russian agents hiding behind bogus social media IDs—face no such consequences. In a wildly expanding infoverse, why waste any time reading text from people we don’t know and can’t hold accountable?

I’ve tried to foster that ethos in my own online presence. I use my real name, a pretty Googlable name, on my blog posts, comments, and anything else of substance I write online. My online persona is not some alt-life; it is who I am, consistent with the ideas and ideals I express in person. I own my words and, whenever possible, back them up with linked and fully cited sources so you can see for yourself.

Plus, I do not lie.

For twelve (!) years, I’ve blogged under the notion that, while I’m almost never the story, the story is made more reliable by letting you know that I’m a real person, a fellow South Dakotan, with a real name, a real face, and a real chance of seeing you at the grocery store (or, swear to Gaia, at the top of Black Elk Peak, where a reader I’d never met recognized me and said hi).

The Relativist-in-chief has preached a nihilist gospel delegitimizing journalists, scientists, and any other authority that threatens his power. Unfortunately, declaring that everyone is equally untrustworthy opens the door to trusting anyone who says what one wants to hear. The proper response to both this cynical relativism and foreign propaganda is to get back to trusting someone. Specifically, we need to acknowledge that some people really do know sh** from Shinola (capitalized! It was shoe polish!) and that those Shinola vendors tend to be the folks offering real names, real sources, and real accountability.

Want to beat the Russians and save democracy? Read before you Retweet. Check names and sources. And model the integrity, online and off, that you expect from your friends and neighbors.

27 Responses to Russian Propaganda, Online Anonymity, and (Re)Establishing Accountability for What We Say

  1. Mr. Lansing

    I can see improvement on the blogs. Hard liners like Ol’Sarge, Charlie Hoffman, Mike Boswell, Happy Camper, Miranda Gohn and even the SDGOP Facebook page have slowed down posting “fake news” because “we the people” call them out for spreading manure from invalid sources. Not that their ultra-conservatism has changed, they just don’t try to justify it with far away opinions posing as facts. Criticism, denouncement and ridicule are strong tools when confronting the half educated, wing nuts.

  2. happy camper

    I don’t think there’s any easy answer, but we don’t teach enough skepticism. Skepticism should be a class like English, Math and repeated every year. Maybe it’s our still-ingrained religious culture which would be at odds with such teaching, but people just believe way too easily, especially if it makes em feel good, if it’s something they want to believe, or if it reinforces.

    Jane Fonda is one example. If there’s a story about her, 95% of the comments say she is Hanoi Jane who turned over messages from American soldiers who were then tortured and killed, she’s a traitor, etc. She will never escape incorrect public opinion even though Snopes and others are very clear, and all the soldiers have come forth to say these stories are complete fabrication. And it has proliferated because of this cheap, expansive form of communication.

    For that reason, one must be very careful, and I’m changing my mind about ridicule, tempting though it is, it probably won’t change hearts or minds. Especially in the case of Miranda Gohn I see no reason for Porter to vilify her. She’s put herself out there and tells the story as she sees it. Noone has to agree.

    But skepticism should be encouraged. No group think!

    And now Cory I don’t mean this as ridicule, you don’t lie, but you also don’t like to listen to things contrary even when factual. Only three times you’ve admitted “fair enough” which means your goose was cooked, well I cook a lot more goose than that. I’ve argued with a lot of smart people in my time, I’m outgunned, but being smart is an Achilles heel.

  3. mike from iowa

    One story about “Hanoi Jane” is how yummy she looked in the opening credits “strip”sequence of the movie Barbarella.

    As far as her anti-patriotism against a war we should never have gotten entangled in-she was right, to my way of thinking. Nixon committed far worse crimes by illegally bombing Laos and extending that disastrous cluster for several more years.

  4. Want to teach skepticism and critical analysis? Require every student to take a full year of speech and compete at at least two intermural debate tournaments.

    (Hap, you’re counting how many times I’ve admitted my goose was cooked? I must be repressing the memory, but I don’t recall being outgunned. ;-) )

  5. Joe Nelson

    Yet you allow commenters to hide behind pseudonyms or partial names?

    The first rule on your comments policy is literally “Leave your real name with your comment.”

    You of course are free to enforce your own rules as you see fit, and make exceptions “Possible exceptions: Dakota Free Press reserves the right to let stand anonymous comments of remarkable wit, intelligence, or verifiable newsworthiness.”

    However, it seems that your exception extends also to a select chosen few, regardless of the quality of their comment. I would rather see you enforce this rule, and hold your commenters to the same standard you live by.

  6. Even though I’ve never done so on this blog, I support letting people comment anonymously. I might keep anonymous commenters on a shorter leash, though, when they engage in name-calling and other obviously rude behavior.

    Just my two cents. I figure Cory knows a lot more about how to make this work than I do.

  7. Joe, I am uneasy with my allowance of pseudonyms. However, I do not grant the privilege to some but not others. My general rule is that if a commenter responds to me by e-mail and trusts me with her or his real name, I let the comment through. I do not allow completely anonymous comments.

  8. Guys it doesn’t matter. Fake news, real news all of it. It doesn’t matter because we let the government open our doors into our private lives and we ignored it as if it weren’t real but hey, if it wasn’t our government other governments were all ready doing it. When the NIS went in front of Congress to get approval to gather “Metadata” they had long been doing it already but you and congress are ignorate to their capabilities. They were given public approval and they took everything. Here’s a briefer to bring it to a level you can understand: Metadata: They told you they were just gathering “metadata” to give them indications on who is communicating with whom to identify those communication with parties from terrorist states. Sounds quant, innocent, benign. . . Here are the facts: When the government gathers “metadata” they are gathering everything. I am talking everything that is contained in your phone call, email or comments on some obscure blog. This includes text data inside your text, email or comment to include who the author is, when you wrote it and a summary of what you wrote. See, when the government told you they were “just” collecting Metadata they collected it all, everything, and when they decide they want to look at the metadata they can see all of it at any time for any from anybody transferred from any IP address in existence. Every electronic device that communicates over any electronic means such as telephone lines, electrical lines, airways or internet is recorded in full, everything. . . What channel you watched on what day and for how long, what web site you were on and what you were looking at, what you typed, what link you clicked and how long you were on it is gathered. When you make a phone call it is digitized and everything you said becomes part of the metadata that is collected by the government, even if you are some lonely rancher in north western South Dakota just calling your wife about a thunderstorm coming your way is gathered, sorted categorized and stored. It is all there, locked away to be garnered at any time someone with access or the authority to order someone with access to provide the information, in full, to do with what they want. My point? The government didn’t just “wiretap” Trump Tower. They “wiretapped” the WORLD and, if you think some person sitting in the White House, DOJ, FBI doesn’t have the 1) authority, 2) the means, 3) the motivation, and 4) the gonads to request, read, disseminate and manipulate the information they gathered through the metadata scam, released it to the media, shared it with their political friends and used it to gain an advantage you are a fool. As pure as the thoughts may have been for the originator of the idea to gather the metadata no longer matters because any party government, political, business or group that had knowledge of the span of information gathered through this metadata effort knows the value of the information and they use it every day for their purposes. Yes, Trump, Hillary, Cruz, Kaine, Stein all of them, their families, their staff and even you were monitored, recorded, gathered, sorted and spread to the opposition of those who control the metadata and that, my friends, is the dark world of the Deep State or the Swamp. Now you can claim it’s political but it’s not. It’s everything including you. . . Trump was wiretapped and the information was and is being used against him. You can hate on Trump all you want but honestly he is the only thing between you and the Deep State that will control you. If you let them and the way you let them control you is to help them bring down Trump. That is reality. Welcome to the real world. . . Your world is over. They know I wrote this before I hit “post comment”.

  9. Mr. Lansing

    So what, you paranoid old fool? I like seeing ads for things that pertain to my interests. I like when the grocery sends me coupons for the things I like, not things I’d never buy. I like when the ads on my cable TV are for the car dealers in my town, not so far away I’d never shop there. I like when terrorist plots are uncovered and there hasn’t been another 911 since metadata was legalized.
    Don’t welcome me to the “real world” because you’re so far removed from it you’d not recognize progress if it was radial tires and power steering.
    Folks … it’s easy to identify a conspiracy kook because they use the word “them” a lot. Stay afraid, you old fool!! It’s easier for the rest of us to get past you on our way to the new things that make OUR life easier and your days full of fraudulent fear.

  10. Again, OldSarg misses the point, preferring as usual to ride his hobbyhorses instead of engaging with a new unrelated concept. OldSarg, can’t you deal with topics that don’t come prechewed in your Fox News or Breitbart e-mail digests?

    Whether or not the government is surveilling my computer has nothing to do with how we in this online conversation go about building trust in each other and verifying each other’s claims. Whether or not the government knew who those Russian agents were creating fake anti-Clinton/pro-Trump profiles, those Russian agents still successfully transmitted their propaganda and got regular Americans to turn them into modern chain letters, because those agents could hide behind our tolerance of anonymity/pseudonymity and those regular Americans didn’t subject that propaganda to critical evaluation before lending that propaganda their own Seal of Share-Approval. We all need to be responsible for what we write and share, and we all need to hold the writers we read and share online accountable for their words… kind of like is happening to Lynne DiSanto right now. No one should get to say vile or false things without facing some consequence.

  11. I agree with Cory that “OldSarg” is kinda changing the subject, but I also believe that what “OldSarg” is saying is extremely important. Our U.S. Representatives and U.S. Senators have passed unconstitutional laws exempting U.S. intel agents from the laws the rest of us live under, and U.S. intel agents are abusing those exemptions by conducting mass data seizures that are unwarranted, unconstitutional, and morally wrong.

  12. Eternal salvation is extremely important (or so I hear), but if someone barges into this conversation with a long repost of the Lord’s Prayer, I’ll throw the same distraction flag. OldSarg is incapable of dealing with new, challenging ideas and always reverts to his preferred hobbyhorses, to the detriment of interesting, educational discussion. He completely dismissed the topic and tried to turn it to something he’d rather recite.

    As I’ve said to others, if you want to start an entirely new conversation, start your own blog. They’re free. And put your name to it.

  13. happy camper

    Skimmed, didn’t see lord’s prayer no need to capitalize. I have never lied here either, the only time I have given a false link is to a former Jewish Rabbi, who became a conspiracy theorist, but still his writing was interesting.

    But even when I give very credible links, to PBS for example, Jerry would say, they have been taken over and they are no longer credible. In other words, I want to think what I want to think evidence be damned. That is not a logical person. That’s a person who wants to think what they want to think. We each have to ask ourselves which person we are, those who go with credible information, or those who go with what makes us feel good.

  14. Porter Lansing

    Camper!! You are the Queen Queer of misleading and misdirecting links that aren’t always lies but are used to falsify the intent of your assertions. AKA… fake news. i.e. Fake news isn’t a lie. It projects a perception of a lie. You don’t always lie but you almost always don’t tell the real truth. In short … you can’t be believed.

  15. happy camper

    Porter those statements are incorrect, in fact I was thinking it is Cory who does not lie, but also is not honest. He has justified his propaganda by saying journalism’s roots made no attempt to be “fair and balanced” which allows him to feel good about being an “activist journalist.” I think that’s the term he used to embrace.

    Have I characterized that correctly Cory?

    So he is an admitted propagandist right now pointing fingers at other propagandists. Because you like his propaganda you don’t see it that way. It’s just that simple, and oh, oh so rare for someone “part of the team” to challenge him, so there’s a level of guilt you all share.

    As a side note I was thinking how can we trust religious believers. If they would believe that, they would believe anything!

    Defined as: Propaganda is the spreading of information in support of a cause. It’s not so important whether the information is true or false or if the cause is just or not — it’s all propaganda. The word propaganda is often used in a negative sense, especially for politicians who make false claims to get elected or spread rumors to get their way. In fact, any campaign that is used to persuade can be called propaganda.

  16. happy camper

    And Porter using derogatory words toward a gay person, that would normally come under attack here, but since I’m “the enemy” he gets license to say whatever he wants. Crickets. The dynamics are worthy of reflection.

  17. mike from iowa

    Matt Drudge has been in near constant contact with Russian propaganda.

  18. mike from iowa

    Porter-shame on you. We don’t need that langwidge here, Sir. Now say yer sorry and let’s all be friendly antagonists where possible.

  19. Mr. Lansing

    You just told a lie, Camper. You assert my statements are incorrect when there’re volumes of evidence documenting when I sent you home crying because I dissected your attempts to mislead and use word games to imply false narratives.
    PS … I ran “Queen Queer” by six of my gay/lesbian immediate family members (my daughter, her wife, her wife’s Mom, her wife’s Uncle and two cousins) and the consensus is that you’re a whiney bitch.

  20. joe, “you” are probably a fool to post under a real name. people are cruel and will try to hurt a poster under such volatile discussions that are necessary to maintain a democracy. its called “forgetting to duck”

    that cory permits it on his blog should give you pause to consider that protection for yourself.

  21. happy camper

    I told Cory if you let me respond anonymously, for reasons of employment, I will respond no differently than if I used my real name. I didn’t keep that promise, publicly I am more reserved, but I think I have responded more honestly being anonymous, hopefully not going completely overboard, and also developed a thicker skin with more honest dealings with people day to day in a beneficial way. Cory said everyone should be in debate as a way to become a skeptic, but many are not cut out for public debate, but everyone should be taught by the school system to be a private skeptic, even if they are not able to do so publicly.

  22. “leslie” writes:

    joe, “you” are probably a fool to post under a real name. people are cruel and will try to hurt a poster under such volatile discussions that are necessary to maintain a democracy. its called “forgetting to duck”

    That’s probably the biggest reason I support letting people comment anonymously. Anonymity can be a kind of equalizer between the weak and the strong. As I’ve already indicated, though, I think maybe anonymous commenters should be kept on a shorter leash when they engage in name-calling and other obviously rude behavior.

  23. Hap, propaganda does carry with it an element of deceit and an element of serving as a messenger for some established power or organization. I am entirely honest about my subjectivity, and I use no falsehoods or rumor to support my arguments or promote my messages. And I do not peddle messages on behalf of or on orders from any organization. I thus deny that my role as an activist journalist (yes, still applicable) is equivalent to that of a propagandist.

    And, per my original post, I remain wholly nymous and thus accountable for the statements I make, here and elsewhere online.

  24. Careful, Kurt: the relatively strong Russians were able to use anonymity to pose as seemingly weak—not rich, not connected—American citizens to peddle its propaganda. Nymity checks such propaganda.

  25. “Private skeptic”—interesting term. But if a skeptic cries “Horsehockey!” in the woods and no one is there to hear him, does he really do anything to check the influence of the horsehockey players?

    I appreciate the point that everyone should be educated to exercise skeptical critical thinking, and that such healthy skepticism begins with one’s personal reading and thinking. However, I advocate debate and nymity as key components of healthy skepticism. We need to train students how to be public skeptics so that, if they want, they can make a difference in challenging horsehockey. We also need to train them to exercise that public skepticism with nymity and to discount messages passed by those who cannot be held accountable for their public claims. The less each of is afraid to express ourselves publicly, the less we excuse casual or lazy anonymity, the fewer anonymous claims we will hear, and the easier it will be, perhaps to distinguish anonymous claims made out of real fear of retribution from anonymous claims made to hide from accountability for lies.

  26. Cory writes:

    Careful, Kurt: the relatively strong Russians were able to use anonymity to pose as seemingly weak—not rich, not connected—American citizens to peddle its propaganda. Nymity checks such propaganda.

    I don’t see how that supposedly conflicts with anything I’ve said.

  27. happy camper

    The line between activist journalist and propagandist is so faint, so light it is indistinguishable, except within the mind of someone who wants to feel good about one and not the other.