A state-funded Russian propaganda agency is sowing discord in the U.S. through schmaltzy feel-good social media accounts, say researchers at Clemson University. These accounts, they claim, share clichéd “heartwarming” and “makes you think” content that sometimes goes viral. Then they slip in news that might be designed to “serve Russia’s interests in undermining Americans’ trust in our institutions.” And Americans like and share it.
Russia is everywhere
Writing for Rolling Stone, the researchers mainly focus on a few popular Twitter accounts, but claim that Russian propaganda accounts appear on “Instagram, Stitcher, Reddit, Google+, Tumblr, Medium, Vine, Meetup, and even Pokémon Go.” (While not mentioned here, Facebook is obviously also infected.) No matter where Americans go online, someone will try to share a piece of anti-U.S. propaganda with them.
Sometimes these posts contain actual lies. One post by the now suspended “PoliteMelanie” reads:
My cousin is studying sociology in university. Last week she and her classmates polled over 1,000 conservative Christians. ‘What would you do if you discovered that your child was a homo sapiens?’ 55% said they would disown them and force them to leave their home.
The story is an old anti-Christian urban legend; you’ll see it pop up in spots like this “satirical” Facebook post by the Atheist Advocate. The survey does not exist.
The immediate takeaway here is, don’t share “facts” from anonymous or non-verified social media accounts, no matter how much those posts confirm your current beliefs and biases. These accounts have no reason to fact-check or research the things they share, and every reason to spread something that just sounds good.
But there are deeper, tougher takeaways here. Sometimes the propaganda accounts post real facts, or opinions that are held in good faith by many Americans. Some of them are banal, like praise for NFL player Warrick Dunn’s charity work. Others are, according to the Clemson researchers, meant to divide Americans with the truth, or with pretty common opinions like “Joe Biden doesn’t deserve our votes!”
If Russia is controlling these accounts, then Russia knows that the truth can break the U.S. apart. It’s not just the Putin government that benefits from “undermining Americans’ trust in our institutions.” Every American who’s been underserved, or even abused, by their institutions could benefit from the rest of America trusting those institutions less. Those institutions are garbage! But they spread their own propaganda.
America is everywhere
Propaganda is everywhere, coming from every entrenched power in the world, especially in America. Social media gave normal people a voice in the conversation, but most of us waste our voice promoting the same shit we’ve been fed for a century through mass media.
The U.S. government has its own overt propaganda on social media. It also has its hands in all kinds of media partnerships, pushing its narratives onto you, working with reporters, celebrities, and other outfits to spread beliefs like “the police protect everyone” and “the military is necessary” and “your leaders know what they’re doing” and “the rich deserve their money” and “America couldn’t be better.”
Capitalism is everywhere
There’s another name for propaganda that benefits one party at the expense of everyone else, and that’s advertising. Advertising exists to make people want things they do not need. The internet runs on it. We sacrifice our privacy for it. We accept it as a necessary evil if we want to communicate any kind of information in this world. But advertising never stops. It never says, “I’ve had enough.” It wants more, it wants bigger and louder. It wants to jump in front of the words you’re reading. It wants to be your friend, it wants to be your news source, it wants to be your entertainment. It wants you to amplify it to all of your followers, for free. And you do.
Everyone is everywhere
Every message that makes its way to your screen is either directly sent by an authority, or filtered through the limitations of thought that authority has placed on you and everyone you know. Everything is microwaved propaganda. And you can’t escape it by going back to mass media, which is just the same shit with more money behind it.
The Clemson researchers claim that Russian propaganda is trying to take down Joe Biden. Biden supporters on social media will wield this claim this to call every Biden critic a Russian agent. Their opponents to the left will use that to dismiss Biden supporters as diehard boot-lickers not worth winning over. Their opponents on the right will use this to dismiss the left as infighting losers.
As our country begins its annual celebration of the successful invasion by Christian white people of someone else’s land, I encourage you to log off, spend time with your loved ones by birth and by choice. And when you log back on, I encourage you to be more careful about the messages you read and spread. Think about who wants you to believe those messages, and why.