Russians Are Teaching the Perils of Social Media “Organizing”

New Orleans     Ok, now they’ve gone too far!

Sure, like everyone I’ve tried to follow the noise and news about Russian interference in 2016 US elections. Not because I think their mischief and dirty tricks determined the results of the election, though I’m uncomfortably agreeing with President Trump on that score, but because, like all foul play, it impacted the election and that’s just plain dangerous, and also where I disagree with President Trump. It’s been wrong when the United States has interfered in elections in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and Africa, and it’s equally wrong when the Russians or the North Koreans or the Chinese or anyone else messes with a country’s elections as well.

It turns out that the Russian interference on social media was not just a matter of buying hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ads on Facebook. Not that that was insignificant either. The newspapers were full of revelations from Congressional hearings with the social media companies that their reach had long hands with posts on Facebook by Russian agents intended to sow discord during the election reached 126 million users on Facebook, more than 100000 posts published on Twitter and uploaded over 1000 videos on Google’s YouTube.

That’s a lot of noise for sure, but what takes me over the edge is the analysis by the Wall Street Journal of some of the accounts that indicates that they weren’t just throwing some words in the wind, but were actually using social media confusion in issuing the call to organize rallies on both sides of issues solely to create division. I’ve always argued that social media is an excellent communications tool, but a flawed organizing tool. Here is a case where they were able to use Facebook especially and its “messenger” application to not only issue the call for direct actions and rallies about various hot button issues, but actually dupe some folks into taking money for supplies, transportation, and other details involved in putting together these wolves-in-sheeps-clothing events. All of which makes them not fake, but real. The Journal was able to determine that at least 22 of the 60 events took place. In some cases the events even provoked counter rallies. In Dallas they turned out 300 people to a “Blue Lives Matter” rally after the shooting of police there. How will those good folks – and many others – feel when they realize they suited up and hit the streets to the call of Russian secret agents?!?

This kind of popular manipulation could make it even harder for real organizations and real organizers to recruit and organize around real grievances in the public space. A country that prides participation and protects protest can’t allow a public to be created that suddenly feels that they are unable to take action for fear of being deceived or to ignore legitimate protests fearing that they could be fake.

On the other hand it should also be a wake-up call about why real organizations are important in social change. Bonafides can easily be confirmed – even using the darned internet – with a check there on the history of the group, a wikipedia search, a look at their website postings. In real organizations people can actually join, volunteer, lead and not just follow, question and not just mimic and repeat the posting, lose and sometimes win.

Not to be too simplistic, but not everyone on Facebook is a friend, and not every call to action should be heeded. These are great tools, but they are even greater in the hands of organizers and organizations, rather than random strangers who may be working for the common good, or as we are now seeing, may be up to the worst evils.


Silent Protests Continue to Have Weight

New Orleans   The National Football League continues to hope that they can outlast the players and their use of their “platform” to communicate their deep feelings about the state of racial injustice and police brutality in the country, but it’s not going away.  In fact it seems fueled by the owners failure to understand the depth of the players’ feelings.  Furthermore, the players protest is also hurting the White House now.

Here’s the scorecard from this weekend’s games as reported in The Hill:

Six players visibly protested at the game between the San Francisco 49ers and Philadelphia Eagles, The Associated Press reported, and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung raised a fist during the anthem before a game in Massachusetts.  During a game in London, nearly all members of the Minnesota Vikings and Cleveland Browns stood arm-in-arm for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save The Queen.” … a majority of Houston Texans players knelt and locked arms during the anthem. While some team members had protested previously, this week’s demonstration appeared to be in response to owner Bob McNair’s comments in an ESPN The Magazine article saying “we can’t have the inmates running the prison,” in reference to prior protests. About ten players stood with their hands over their hearts, according to The Houston Chronicle.

Ok, not a mass movement for sure, but effective all the same.  The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that only 30% of Americans overall approved of President Trump’s handling of the NFL protest.  Of course Trump’s overall approval was a record low at 38%, but the protests were among his lowest scores, partially because he’s fighting a battle he can’t win.

He’s not the only rich, high-riser who is out of touch though.  Houston Texan’s owner, Bob McNair, clearly didn’t get it at all, but neither did Dallas Cowboys owner, Jerry Jones.  One tried, ham-handedly to mouth off as a boss, and the other tried playing the schoolyard bully.  Both were forced, likely by their coaches, to have to appear at a captive audience meeting with their players to back off their comments.  Those were powerful, silent protests behind the pay window from the fans and the media glare, but the fact that they happened at all is proof of the power of the protest and the depth of its support.

There’s also no peace on the field that is likely forthcoming.  Organizers and leaders of the current protests, only a week after an attempt at a reconciliation effort to co-opt the players in a meeting brokered by the league and the union with the owners in New York City, last week publicly complained that they were disappointed in the lack of progress and movement on these issues.  The McNair flareup will sharpen their critique, and start to pry the lid off of the effort to compromise and upgrade the league’s profile of work in the community.

Protests, large or small, loud or quiet, never really end until there is real change, and none is evident at this point.