If you are active on political Twitter and were shocked yesterday when the New York Times announced that “Russia has been trying to intervene in the Democratic primaries to aid Senator Bernie Sanders,” you haven’t absorbed the lessons of 2016. Nor do you truly understand the Trump administration’s — and internet oligarchs’ —indifference to Russian interference when there are profits to be made from it.
But at Public Seminar, we have been paying attention to the corruption of what blogger Jerome Armstrong dubbed “the netroots” in 2002: grassroots political activism that occurs primarily online. In collaboration with our friends in the Eurozine network, we have a cluster of articles in this week’s issue about Disinformation.
- Adam Ramsay shows how disinformation, on its own, becomes a winning strategy.
- I offer up a simple illustration of how an unvetted rumor floated on The Drudge Report, intended to activate both Sanders and Trump partisans by suggesting that Hillary Clinton is poised to jump into the 2020 race as Michael Bloomberg’s running mate, moved onto mainstream journalism platforms.
- Howard Rheingold, one of the earliest internet intellectuals, and the author of Netsmart: How to Thrive Online (2014) shows you how to activate your “crap detector” to help save our democracy. If you have limited time this weekend, but you are active on political Twitter, this is the one to read.
As someone who has just finished a book about digital alternative media, I also want to offer practical advice. The best defense against Russian interference in social media campaigns, or social media activists who repeatedly insult you and spread disinformation about your candidate online, is to not help them.
Here are the five rules that guide my own social media engagement now:
Rule #1: Limit your engagement with, or reactions to, online negativity and incivility. Here, Jaron Lanier’s warning that dark emotions are “stickier” than happy ones, and that social media platforms are engineered to use dark emotions to keep us glued to them, is particularly relevant. Negative tweets may most frequently come from people who are well-known to you. Hold yourself to one or two exchanges, ignore that rush of serotonin that is flooding your brain and leave. When an account that is unknown to you sparks anger, the best reaction is to not respond, and either mute or block it.
Rule #2: Especially limit your time on Facebook. Unlike many people, I find Facebook to be a far darker place than Twitter, even though, I would argue, Twitter’s wide-open channels makes it far more vulnerable to bad actors, fake accounts, misguided partisans, and sociopaths. As Siva Vaidhyanathan put it in his most recent book, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy (2018), “The problem with Facebook is Facebook.”
I went off the platform for most of 2019 and didn’t miss it. Now that I have checked back in because of an impending book launch, I can see that very little has changed since 2016. People are still arguing in the same obsessive, anxious, damaging ways that promote chaos and division. They are retweeting articles they have not read, which accelerates the circulation and promotion of fake news. Furthermore, nearly every day I receive friend requests from fake accounts.
Rule #3: Rather than engaging in the struggle to be right, be ruthless in blocking, muting and removing distressing posts from your feed, while explaining to offenders who are real friends why their posts and tweets have been removed. Think about how you expect people to behave in your living room, and then apply these standards to your social media. This might include letting others know how their behavior affects you and asking them to change it. For example, after Trump was elected, I wrote to one close friend and asked them to stop leaving obsessive comments in my feed predicting the imminent arrival of a second Holocaust. They agreed! Problem solved.
Similarly, imagine if someone walked into your house and insulted the presidential candidate you favor, replete with sexist, racist or anti-Semitic insults, and nasty characterizations of your intelligence. Would you ask them to stay or would you escort them to the door? Blocking and muting serve the same social function: mute people whose posts induce rage, but who do not @ you; block people who seem to be professional troublemakers, or who get a charge out of tracking your account and making your life miserable.
Rule #4: Dogpiling and abuse? There’s an app for that. Last summer, as I was being dogpiled by the youth wing of Democratic Socialists of America over a trivial slight, I happened to be reading Zoe Quinn’s fantastic account of #Gamergate, Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate. (2017) Now a consultant to people who are being doxxed and dogpiled, Quinn’s final chapter sketches out some basic internet hygiene. For example, don’t put identifying information in social media profiles and don’t use names in your password or security settings that could be easily learned from your feed. Both things make it easy for a hacker to take over your account, and/or doxx you.
Quinn also recommends Twitter BlockChain, and I do too. TBC not only takes out an account that is harassing you, but takes out that account’s whole network, identifying actual friends you may not wish to block. I cannot recommend it more highly: it put an end to my two-day DSA dogpile in about 90 minutes. It also means that, while I believe my friends who are seeing abusive Sanders partisans in their feeds, I am not, because I seem to have zapped these networks last summer. This has mostly left Sanders partisans whose judgment I trust, whose behavior does not repel me, and who I will be happy to canvass with should he win the nomination.
Rule #5: Become familiar with what bots and fake accounts look like, don’t accept friends and followers you haven’t vetted, and pay attention to which people in your networks are conduits for fake accounts, bots, and trolls. On Facebook, a chief tactic for spreading disinformation is to “dupe” an account, so that fake stories appear to come from a friend. You will receive a friend request from someone who is already a friend, or requests from friends of friends. Simply check to make sure that person is not already a friend, and periodically go through your list of friends to make sure you don’t have two accounts from the same person.
On Twitter, when you get a follow, navigate to that person’s profile and check: is it an account with lots of numbers? An “egg” or a sci-fi/manga profile pic? Does the account seem to proliferate memes? Does it tweet — or does it mostly retweet? (This makes it what I call a “relay” account, whose job it is to move disinformation, harassment, and memes into new networks it has penetrated.)
Most importantly, does this account follow far more accounts than follow it? The ratio of followers to followed should be at least 50-50. Anything higher than 1-3 is suspicious, and my ratio is normally more like 1-100. If an account doesn’t pass these tests, you should not only block it but do yourself a favor and proactively take out its whole network with Twitter BlockChain.
Also, be aware of which friends are most likely to make you vulnerable to dodgy networks and bad actors: mostly they will be people who rely on a vigorous social media presence to make a living. In my experience, creatives trying to make it in the gig economy can be the worst when it comes to approving unknown friends and followers because they rely on extensive social media networks to get and publicize work. Two IRL connections that I value deeply seem to accept followers so uncritically that if I receive a request or a follow, and see that either person is a mutual friend, I almost always delete or block it immediately.
Finally: consider repurposing some of that time you are spending at your computer having political arguments, or being an amateur pundit, actually volunteering for your candidate in your community or in an adjacent town or state. I have been volunteering for a campaign, and there is little that has been more rewarding than the canvassing and phone banking shifts that allow me to talk to strangers about the election. It isn’t just about winning (we haven’t won a primary yet): it’s about creating social ties and building solidarity in a way that will ultimately allow you to stay in your party’s fight even if your candidate doesn’t succeed in winning the nomination.
This is how we rebuild democracy: at the grassroots, not at the keyboard alone.
- Lisa Lerer reports (New York Times, February 22, 2020) that Bernie Sanders has been a “Teflon candidate,” but should expect tough questions about the past if his front-runner status solidifies. “President Trump and the Republican Party would likely spend millions branding him as a socialist,” Lerer writes. Since Sanders says he is a socialist, Donald Trump has said and done far more horrible things, and the oppo Lerer cites is well-known, I am skeptical that these particular negatives will be Sanders’ main problem in a general election.
- In Las Vegas, Donald Trump surprises us all by insisting that the real disinformation in the 2020 campaign isn’t coming from Russia — it’s coming from the Democrats. (Katie Rogers, New York Times, February 21, 2020)
- Black to the Future Action Fund, “a think tank and political organizing group, was formed by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza,” has made its first political endorsement ever. And the winner is? Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. (Alexi McCammond, Axios, February 20, 2020)
- Jon Allsop points out that critical coverage of Michael Bloomberg’s business career and his three terms as Mayor of New York City is “too little, too late,” and has “allowed him to shape a positive narrative on his own preferred terms.” Allsop also notes that the platforms that should be covering Bloomberg are benefitting from the hundreds of millions of dollars he is pumping into ad buys (Columbia Journalism Review, February 19, 2020)
- Rebecca Traister asks why independent Republican Susan Collins has gambled her political reputation on Trump, causing her to become the least popular member of the Senate and even more reviled than Mitch McConnell. (New York Magazine, February 18, 2020)
- Historian Eric Foner reminds us that in the 150 years since Emancipation, “There Have Been 10 Black Senators.” (New York Times, February 14, 2020)
Claire Potter is co-executive editor of Public Seminar and Professor of History at The New School for Social Research. You can tweet with her @TenuredRadical. Subscribe to her Substack, Political Junkie, here.