Why do I hold comments from new sources in the moderation queue until the commenters respond to a confirmation email and share their full name? Because, among other things, my comment nymity policy protects my country from divisive Putin propaganda.
A fascinating report in the New York Times explains how the KGB agent who now rules Russia has revived has old agency’s strategy of exploiting social divisions to turn Americans against each other. In this case, NYT documents how Russian propagandists pretended to be Americans and posted provocative comments online to undermine the women’s movement that arose in 2017 in response to Trumpism. Their aim was like that of many trolls and Republicans—not to offer logic and evidence, but simply to own the libs:
Artyom Baranov, who worked at one of Project Lakhta’s affiliates from 2018 to 2020, concluded that his co-workers were, for the most part, people who needed the money, indifferent to the themes they were asked to write on.
“If they were assigned to write text about refrigerators, they would write about refrigerators, or, say, nails, they would write about nails,” said Mr. Baranov, one of a handful of former trolls who have spoken on the record about their activities. But instead of refrigerators and nails, it was “Putin, Putin, then Putin, and then about Navalny,” referring to Aleksei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader.
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.
When a post succeeded at enraging a reader, he said, a co-worker would sometimes remark, with satisfaction, Liberala razorvala. A liberal was torn apart. “It wasn’t on the level of discussing facts or giving new arguments,” he said. “It’s always a way of digging into dirty laundry” [Ellen Barry, “How the Russian Trolls Helped Keep the Women’s March Out of Lock Step,” New York Times, 2022.09.18].
We should not let anyone exploit emotion, personal grievances, or even legitimate political disagreements to undermine our efforts to work together for truth, justice, and shared public policy goals. People exploiting such points of division to derail civic discourse and action may not just be misguided; they may actually be Misha in Moscow helping Putin’s war on the West.