You've probably done it dozens or even hundreds of times. You read a news item in your Facebook news feed that made you furious. Maybe it was shared by someone you know or maybe by someone you never met. Maybe it came from a group you joined out of interest in a political cause. You thought other people should know about it, so you posted about it or shared it. Perhaps there was a rally planned to protest whatever it was, and you shared that information, too.
There's a good chance that, though you didn't know it, you were helping Russian trolls. An indictment filed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Friday has made clear just how very likely that is.
If you're feeling smug because you rarely use Facebook, you should know that the same Russian operatives used identical tactics on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, according to the indictment. And although the indictment doesn't mention Snapchat, Reddit, or any of the many other social networks on which Americans interact with one another, you can bet there were Russian operatives manipulating people on other social media as well.
The purpose of all this interference seems to have been to prevent the election of Hillary Clinton as president, to help Donald Trump win the election, and to sow as much discord and animosity as possible among different groups of Americans. They were alarmingly good at that last task. In fact, if you ever attended a rally or protest organized via social media, there's a good chance Russians got you there. In May, anti- and pro-immigration groups faced off in Houston, and both groups were unwittingly sent by Russian trolls.
If you stayed home on election day out of disgust for both candidates, or voted for a third-party candidate, ask yourself whether that decision was in any way influenced by social media. That was one aim of the Russian meddlers. They particularly sought to keep African Americans and Muslims from turning out to vote, posing as members of both groups and arguing that staying home or lodging a protest vote was a better option than supporting either major candidate.
And if you think every event or news item you read about on Facebook was genuine and not Russian fakery, the odds are against that being true. Facebook reports that there were 130 different rallies organized by 13 of the many Russian-backed political pages all over the platform, and that those pages alone reached 126 million Americans, which is well over half of the roughly 200 million American Facebook users. And that's just those pages. Add the other Russian pages, the more than $100,000 worth of Facebook advertising that the Russians bought and that we all saw, and the millions of us who interacted with the Russian fakers on Instagram and Twitter. It's quite likely that all of us, whatever our political leanings, have been exposed to posts and comments that Russians put there to influence us.
And it's still happening. After last week's shooting in Parkland, Florida, Russian social media bots sprang into action and began posting on Twitter with hashtags like #guncontrolnow and #Parklandshooting. As always, the purpose is to help us stay angry. Go read through the tweets with those hashtags. Every single one of them expresses outrage. Some of them were tweeted by Americans genuinely expressing their feelings, others were tweeted by Russians posing as Americans, and I don't see any way to know for sure which is which.
How do we stop it?
I don't know about you, but I don't want to be manipulated into spreading foreign influence ever again. Here are my best ideas for how to make sure we are not used this way in the future.
1. Think before you share.
When you read a news item on social media that infuriates you, especially if it touches on a hot-button issue such as gun control, immigration, race relations, abortion, or religion, stop and think before you share. Wait 24 hours. Ask yourself if you're sure of the facts, and if whoever posted whatever it was is sure of his or her facts.
Let go of the idea that "Other people need to know about this!" at least for a little while. Ask yourself if whatever you're planning to share will make it easier or harder for people with opposite viewpoints on the subject to understand and respect one another, and if it will make it harder, consider not sharing it. Now apply the same standard to all those hilariously funny posts you see mocking your political enemies. I know it's tempting to send them out, but consider not sharing those either.
2. Research before you share.
The Russian meddlers love spreading fake news that seems amazing or outrageous to foster discord. So make sure you aren't helping them. Before you share any story on Facebook or any other social network, do a quick internet search to learn more about it. Look for reports by major news organizations, and see if they interviewed people or reported facts on the ground.
There's a lot of distrust of the "mainstream media," some of it perhaps aided and abetted by Russian manipulators. While the major media is certainly not perfect, it's the best tool we have to determine if something is real. Does every story you can find on the topic seem to come from a partisan source, even one you agree with? Does every news report seem to simply pick up and retell the facts instead of presenting original information? Consider not sharing that story.
The same goes for rallies and events you're thinking about attending or sharing. If they're organized by an established group that has a long history with this topic, that's great. If it's a new-seeming group that has sprung up on social media, consider the possibility that Russians are behind it. Remember that their only goal is to keep people angry. For example, after supporting Trump's candidacy, they also organized some of the "Not my president" protests.
3. Have goodwill.
The United States is in a deep state of acrimony, with ill feeling running deep on every side and no end in sight. None of this is good for our democracy, our society, or for us as individuals. So let's try and change our attitudes about the people we disagree with. Whatever your political opinions, there are millions of people in this country who deeply disagree with you, and you probably disagree with them just as vehemently.
Consider the possibility that these may not be evil people. They may not even be uneducated, uninformed people who've been led astray by irresponsible leaders or media. They may simply be people with values and beliefs that differ from yours. Being outraged at them won't help you understand their point of view. Neither will making fun of them. And we had better all start trying to understand the viewpoints we disagree with. Or this nation will be in even deeper trouble than we already are, and we'll have no one to blame but ourselves.