How Russia harvested and amplified American rage to reshape U.S. politics

The New York Times reports: YouTube videos of police beatings on American streets. A widely circulated internet hoax about Muslim men in Michigan collecting welfare for multiple wives. A local news story about two veterans brutally mugged on a freezing winter night.

All of these were recorded, posted or written by Americans. Yet all ended up becoming grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that has carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin, and which is now believed to be at the center of a far-reaching Russian program to influence the 2016 presidential election.

A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.

The Russian pages — with names like “Being Patriotic,” “Secured Borders” and “Blacktivist” — cribbed complaints about federal agents from one conservative website, and a gauzy article about a veteran who became an entrepreneur from People magazine. They took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them, sometimes lightly edited for maximum effect.

Other posts on the Russian pages used stilted language or phrases rarely found in American English. Yet their use of borrowed ideas and arguments from Americans, which were already resonating among conservatives and liberals, demonstrated a deft understanding of the political terrain. The Russians also paid Facebook to promote their posts in the feeds of American Facebook users, helping them test what content would circulate most widely, and among which audiences.

“This is cultural hacking,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage — and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.” [Continue reading…]

One of the biggest problems in shining light on Russia’s massive interference campaign is the same one that’s presented by all other forms of fraud: the victims are reluctant to acknowledge that they got duped, because this is humiliating — very few people have the humility to own their capacity to be fooled.

Moreover, one of the engines driving political social media is the fact that alternative news sources cater to an audience that sees itself as smart enough not to be deceived by the mainstream media. So, when the mainstream media now says, you guys got duped, the reflexive response from many will be, that’s what the mainstream media wants everyone to believe.

In this way, social media has become the perfect delivery system for disinformation. To a significant degree it is inoculated from the impact of being called out.

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