If you think that Russian disinformation campaigns on social media are just about re-electing Trump, think again.
Russia’s playing a far longer game in American politics than any presidential race. Overall, they want to weaken the United States in the long run . And that will only hurt efforts to fight climate chaos and get our country, and the world, off of dirty energy soon enough to save our bacon.
Why does the Russian government want to weaken the US?
So they can have a free hand to bring neighboring countries like Ukraine back into the Russian orbit without having to answer to the US and our allies in western Europe. This can have real world benefits for Moscow. For example, Putin annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Though the US was able to slap up some economic sanctions, our response so far has failed to pressure Russia to return Crimea, which the US and our allies contend was seized illegally, or to stop efforts to acquire more territory from Ukraine in the future.
And Russia’s best hope to weaken us?
They’re not China — we hardly buy anything from Russia these days — so trade war won’t work. And fortunately hot war is still out of the question, though that could change in the future if Putin continues to increase in wealth and strength.
No, for now, Russia’s attack on America has got to be something more subtle and affordable. Something like a propaganda war waged through social media, as the Mueller Report documented.
On social media, Russia’s strategy is a clever one. They want to separate Americans from each other, not only conservative vs. liberal but also by race and gender.
Polarization. It’s not just for Fox News or MSNBC anymore. It’s a foreign power’s way of attacking our country.
Polarization is also a way for that foreign power to support the oil industry that provides a big part of Russian government revenue, according to Rachel Maddow’s new book Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.
Polarized Politics Worsens Climate Chaos
My book The Solar Patriot aimed to help Americans get past traditional differences of liberals vs. conservatives on climate change, and come together on our country’s need for solar power. My new book Abolish Oil Now! will have a similar approach, to unite Americans behind a heroic accomplishment from our nation’s past, abolishing slavery, to accomplish a heroic task needed today, getting our country off of fossil fuels.
The only way to save our country, and our world, from climate chaos, is to unite liberals and conservatives of all genders, races and ethnic backgrounds against oil barons who are putting their profits before our future.
Heck, we could even unite with oil barons if they’d only stop being a problem and start supporting solutions.
So, yes, a certain amount of conflict is necessary to fight against those who are standing in the way, or actively making things worse. But you need to know who the real enemy is.
And the real enemy of climate solutions is not ordinary Americans who lean conservative. Indeed, plenty of conservatives support climate solutions like solar power, as I discovered doing interviews for The Solar Patriot, from former South Carolina Republican Congressman Bob Inglis to Ash Mason of the Christian Coalition. And younger conservatives overwhelmingly accept climate science and want to do something to stop climate chaos.
The real enemy is those who want to burn more carbon than the atmosphere can take. Today, that’s oil barons and governments of petro-states. And while the US and Canada certainly qualify as major oil producers, since those nations are still democracies, we can still hope to reform them. But dictatorships like Russia’s appear beyond reform until they get some more democracy. Let’s hope that happens soon.
In the meantime, Russia’s authoritarian regime is on the offensive worldwide to protect oil, as Maddow shows.
Americans need to band together to attack our common problems and protect ourselves from our common enemies among foreign powers who mean us ill. Top of the list is Putin’s Russia, which has already declared propaganda war on Americans.
And the front line of Putin’s disinformation war are the savvy social media warriors of the Internet Research Agency. A far cry from the Russian “trolls” of yesteryear, these days, you can’t identify a fake account posting by misspelled words and robotic grammar. Today’s online Russian agents have studied Americans and they know how to get into our heads, whether we’re on the right or the left.
Since most of my friends tend to lean liberal or progressive, I found it especially interesting to see how Russian online agents manipulate us.
How Russian Disinformation Targets Liberals
Russian agents on social media are not posing as Fox News fans to try to bait liberals into arguments. It’s the opposite, really. Fake social media accounts want to become your friends, who post stuff that you’ll like and want to share.
Many of their posts are heart-warming and seem harmless enough. For example, take this tweet about NFL player Warren Dunn, who built homes for single moms, provided by Clemson University researchers Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren:
As Linvill and Warren put it, after reviewing two years of tweets from fake accounts run by Russian agents, “professional disinformation isn’t spread by the account you disagree with — quite the opposite. Effective disinformation is embedded in an account you agree with.”
To establish credibility, the fake identities that Russian agents adopt online appear to be all-American. As examples, the Clemson team shares posts from two Twitter accounts traced back to operatives of the Internet Research Agency.
Both @IamTyraJackson and @PoliteMelanie use profile pictures of African American women. They sure don’t look like or sound like somebody from Moscow or St. Petersburg — unless you mean St. Petersburg, Florida. See @PoliteMelanie’s profile below:
Then, to reel in liberals, the accounts discuss real issues like racial and gender equity, with a generous helping of hashtags like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. For example, Tyra and accounts associated with hers shared many posts about racial and gender inequality that resonated with their liberal audiences. For example, “a tweet about Brock Turner’s Stanford rape case received 15,000 likes. Another about police targeting black citizens in Las Vegas was liked more than 100,000 times,” researchers Linvill and Warren note.
Once they’ve convinced their liberal audience that they care about women and African Americans too, then fake accounts go on to share red meat for liberals, such as this re-crafting of an urban legend by @PoliteMelanie:
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.
If you’re a liberal who already thinks that conservatives are not just homophobic but also gullible and poorly educated, then this tweet may bring a smile to your face. And that’s what makes it such clever propaganda for Russians who want to drive liberals and conservatives further apart. As the Clemson researchers explain, the tweet “was subtle enough to not feel overtly hateful, but was also aimed directly at multiple cultural stress points, driving a wedge at the point where religiosity and ideology meet.”
And it worked, apparently, getting more than 90,000 retweets and nearly 300,000 likes.
Russians don’t actually want liberals to get angry at conservatives. That would be too serious. Fake social accounts are not usually about generating anger at the other side, but instead generating about disgust at the other side. Russian agents just want liberals to dismiss, laugh at, and ultimately, ignore conservatives.
“The Russians know that, in political warfare, disgust is a more powerful tool than anger. Anger drives people to the polls; disgust drives countries apart,” the Clemson researchers say.
Meanwhile, on conservative social media accounts, Russians are doing the same thing vis-a-vis liberals.
If You Care about Climate, Resist the Temptation to Polarize
Whether you think impeachment is a necessary constitutional check on a dangerous demagogue or a criminal attack on a sitting president by a bunch of sore losers who never got over Hillary’s defeat, the division that the impeachment process creates among Americans was made to order for Russia.
To paraphrase McDonald’s, Putin’s lovin’ it.
As long as it doesn’t get too heated and make people angry so that they go out and vote. But if impeachment just creates a simmering disgust with the other side, and causes us all to lose just a bit more faith in the core institutions of American society from the White House and Congress to the news media, then however it turns out, then it’s all good in the offices of the Internet Research Agency.
But we need those institutions to fight climate chaos. We need the government first to stop subsidizing Big Oil. Then we need the government to make Big Oil pay to pollute through a carbon tax. Finally, we need the government to require Big Oil to phase out oil production altogether, wind down their business, return all profits and asset to shareholders and finally, close up shop altogether.
And to make that happen, we need the news media to accurately report on the climate crisis and climate solutions. That reporting must be early and often.
So, Americans who care about climate change cannot become cynical and distrustful. Instead, we need to build faith in the institutions that have helped us deal with our nation’s biggest problems in the past, from ending slavery to defeating Hitler, to face our biggest challenge today, stopping runaway climate chaos.
Overall, if we worry about climate, then we need to join with other Americans who feel the same way. Some of them will be a different race or gender or have voted for a different candidate for president.
And that’s how it needs to be. Americans must come together to fight the real enemy, dirty energy. And we must resist the temptation to get angry at each other over differences that we may be able to work out by just listening to each other more for a start.
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot