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.

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