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.