Weaponized: How social media started World War III.

Daniil Andreev looked like he stepped out of a 60s spy novel, sitting in a dive bar in Brooklyn, nervous, finding the shadows for his face, a deep voice, cigarette scared lungs.

“You people should see this for what it is. Don’t lose it in all the smoke billowing from the White House.”

I came here to the bar as a result of a phone call. A friend thought I might find what Andreev had to say interesting. I’d been all over New York chasing this story down. Anyone who had been paying attention knew most of what was happening in the world was coming out of the city. And by happening, I meant political events in the United States, Britain, France, all over. Strange things. Logic-defying, data busting things. A lot of it originating right on these streets.

“The American people are free to do exactly what they are told.”
Ward Churchill

“The Russians have a goal of weakening democracies via social media.”

He let that sit there for a minute. I couldn’t see his face, but his message was clear enough.

“Psychological Operations they call it, and it’s working for them. Don’t you think? Look at who is in the White House. Look at what he is doing. Don’t you think it’s working for them? I do.”

Andreev asks if I want a drink. Alcohol will send me down a dark path, but I nod my head. I want to keep him talking.

He signals to the bartender, flashes two fingers in the air, then resumes.

“They do this with very few people knowing, caring, or understanding how powerful of a weapon social media is. These are the same tactics that they used during Brexit, Crimea, the 2016 US elections, the divisiveness after Charlottesville, the divisiveness of NFL/take a knee, Catalonia/Spain, and a lot more.”

“Wait, what?” I can’t believe what I’m hearing. “Did you say Charlottesville? The anthem protests?”

“Yes. It’s crazy how successful this has been. Why stop? They’re successful using social media to cause as much divisiveness as possible for American democracy and any democracy. Democracy itself is the enemy. It’s always been the enemy. The weapons have changed. The weapons are better than ever now.”

“The whole purpose of propaganda is to make the obvious seem obscure, or offensive” 
Stefan Molyneux

I am comfortable with the Andreev’s of the world. I’ve been lost in the dark pages of Russian literature, had a lifetime of deep cynicism about the way governments work, the lies and distortions of forked-tongued politicians. I’ve seen war justified by webs of lies. But there’s something else going on here, something so different, so unprecedented with what has gone before. Old-school propaganda looks like finger-painting. The Bay of Pigs deceit sounds like a nursery school rhyme. The Iraq Weapons of Mass destruction lies was harmless prank compared to this.

“As humans, one of our biggest strengths is also one of our major weaknesses. We have evolved to depend on each other for everything from gathering our food, to forming opinions on political and social issues. Just as none of us have the time and resources to farm and harvest our food, none of us have the time and resources that would be required to take in all of the information on every issue, analyze it, and come up with an opinion. Because of this, we depend on others to farm and harvest our food, to make our clothes and our cars, and to help us form what we consider to be ‘our own’ opinions on topics.”

“You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” 
Robert A. Heinlein, Revolt in 2100/Methuselah’s Children

“We take a more efficient route, not because we are truly lazy, but because we don’t have the time to farm and hunt, make our clothes, invent our vehicles, or sift through enormous amounts of information on political/social issues.

“Think of a simple experiment, where we wanted to determine how people view a specific topic that they know very little about. If we simply took a survey and asked thousands of people where they stand on the issue (an issue that they haven’t spent much time thinking about), we’d probably get most people saying that they’re not sure where they stand.

“Now let’s say we change the experiment around, to see if it’d be possible for us to ‘engineer’ a particular outcome. So in this version of the experiment, we’ll ask thousands of people the same question. But instead of asking people the question and asking them to answer on their own, we’ll ask them to spend an hour in a room with a group of people, and we’ll ask the group to discuss the issue before asking each to answer the question. To make things interesting, we’ll plant several people in the group, and we’ll ask them to try to steer the group toward the answer that we’re attempting to engineer.

“What we’d find is that the more ‘plants’ that we have in the groups, the higher the number of individuals that would form their opinion toward our ‘engineered outcome.’ And once people form an opinion on something, it’s challenging to get them to change their minds.”

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” 
H.L. Mencken, In Defense Of Women

I was stunned. With the other pieces I knew about, billionaires like Robert Mercer, master data alchemist, working in the shadows to get the right opinion formed and then watching it set in stone. A massive propaganda push funded by billionaires, billionaires who understood data and how to use it to manipulate us. It seemed like an impossible dragon to slay, a democracy consuming beast let loose in America.

“Now let’s think about this regarding engineering outcomes on social media. Facebook and Twitter are essentially giant versions of the experiment described above. They are platforms where incredibly large groups of people gather to show funny cat pictures, show off pictures of their kids, and of course, to discuss/argue about political and social issues. Unfortunately, in the same way, that we planted people in our groups to sway opinions toward an engineered outcome in the above hypothetical experiment, external forces can do the same thing using social media.

“Plant the right number of clicks or likes, and you can easily up vote an idea or philosophy to sway large groups of people. Just provide a fake news story here and there, hire an army of internet trolls, and suddenly you control the conversation. The more you control the conversation, the more people you can sway toward your desired belief.

“It seems that right now, everyone focused on the advertising dollars that the Russians have spent on Facebook and Twitter. But this advertising pales in comparison to the impact that the Russian troll farms are making in their data/disinformation war that they have waged. These troll farms, in conjunction with Russian Government run news organizations, underground disinformation spreading organizations, etc., create fake groups, write false articles, and write fictitious posts. The troll farms use these to create division and to steer/engineer the conversation toward desired outcomes.”

“Propaganda is a soft weapon; hold it in your hands too long, and it will move about like a snake, and strike the other way.”
 — Jean Anouilh, L’Alouette, 1952

I knew this was true. I had experienced it myself. Sometimes it was blatant. People with foreign sounding names attacking me viciously in the comments section. Sometimes it was more subtle. I got into the habit of checking who I was speaking to, clicking on accounts that would come up with no posts and no friends. You had to wonder who was behind these posts.

“It’s like war, and we don’t even know it’s declared,” I said. I guess the expression on my face showed how helpless I felt.

Andreev sat back in his chair, shook his head like he realized how intense he’d been and he wanted to make amends, make me feel better. That was going to be impossible. I felt scared. All the battles I’d fought my whole life lost in one crazy twelve-month swing.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “There’s things we can do. In both the Twitter data and the Facebook data, foreign adversaries and their troll farms will be identifiable. They will show specific patterns in behavior, and they will be traceable back to specific networks. They post together, and their frequency of posting with specific hashtags or promoting or liking specific stories will reveal patterns that will allow algorithms to identify them. These posts can be correlated back to Russian propaganda articles, providing even further proof.

“The greatest threat to peace is the barrage of rightist propaganda portraying war as decent, honorable, and patriotic.” 
Jeannette Rankin

“The Russian paid advertising is just the stuff that they use to jump-start their troll farms on any divisive issue. So looking at who paid for advertising on social media, isn’t going to get us anywhere. A hundred thousand $’s in paid ads gets amplified immediately by the troll farms.

“Looking deeper into the data, it will even be possible to determine which trolls are human, and which are bots. Most importantly though, algorithms will be able to put an end to the Russian meddling.

“Relatively simple algorithms could be used to identify and stop this. To create these algorithms, it would require that Facebook and Twitter provide the necessary data. The algorithms could then be voluntarily implemented by Twitter and Facebook, or mandated if need be.”

Daniil Andreev doesn’t exist, the information in this story provided by an anonymous source, but it rings true. Citizens United opened a pandora box of privately funded misinformation, and it has become the single most significant threat to democracy in history. And yet millions don’t see it. They still play politics as usual. The roots of liberty and freedom are rotting away, and many people still think the idea of winning at all costs is worth any compromise of truth.

Like what you read? Give CF McHale a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.