Thursday, February 22, 2018

Best defense against Russia's lies: `Consider the source' -- Feb. 22, 2018 column


The Russians are coming – for real. And they’ll meddle in our November elections.

After all, it worked for them in 2016.

“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee Feb. 13.

“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” Coats said.

Even President Donald Trump now concedes Russians interfered in the last presidential election, though he still cannot bring himself to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin. Authorities agree there’s no evidence vote tallies were altered, but it’s impossible to know how many minds were changed.

Russia’s goal is to sow fear, distrust, discord and divisiveness in America and elsewhere and restore Russia’s role as a world power, experts say. Russians have been successfully pushing our emotional buttons for years, using social media.

Most recently, after the massacre in Parkland, Florida, they used #guncontrolnow and #gunreformnow to stir the pot. They used similar tactics following the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Texas.

Russians began posing as Americans in social media, creating false stories and spewing tweets, in 2014. These were trial runs to see how much they could get Americans to believe, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday after an extensive investigation.

We take the bait -- as the tale of the tainted turkey demonstrates.

Around Thanksgiving 2015, someone claiming to be Alice Norton, a 31-year-old mother of two in New York City, wrote on a cooking website forum that her whole family had gotten food poisoning from a Walmart turkey. Twitter repeated the claim thousands of time, and a news story reported 200 people were in critical condition at hospitals.

The story was a hoax. There was no such outbreak of food poisoning, the Journal reported. The claims were linked to a Kremlin propaganda agency charged with meddling in U.S. elections by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

The tainted turkey was just one of several fictitious events Russian propagandists manufactured before they moved on to support Trump and Bernie Sanders while disparaging Hillary Clinton, the Journal said.

The United States continues to be “under attack” by those who want to create cyber disruption, Coats and other intelligence officials warned. Our response?

“We’ve had more than a year to get our act together and address the threat posed by Russia and implement a strategy to deter future attacks,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said at the hearing. “We still do not have a plan.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a Cyber-Digital Task Force Tuesday to study what the Justice Department is doing to combat global security threats. Interference in our elections is one priority.  

That’s good, as far as it goes.

Social media companies are shutting down Russian bots, the automated accounts that flood tweets and posts, but as soon as one account is gone, others pop up.  

If we can’t rely on the government or corporations to stop the flow of misinformation by November, if ever, what can we do?  

Three words: Consider the source.

That’s what my mother said when I was a child and a bully said or did something ugly. Consider the source means don’t pay attention to someone whose opinion doesn’t matter.

Now more than ever we need to know if the source of information is credible. Don’t rely on Wikipedia or your friends to have their facts straight.

To recognize bots, experts suggest checking an account’s bio and profile picture. If the language is odd, if you Google the image and find it all over the Internet, if the “person” tweets more than seems humanly possible – move on. Don’t share it.  

We need to cultivate more good old American skepticism. Propaganda works because it plays to our existing distrust and divisions. Recognize when you love or hate something online it may be because it confirms your bias. We all have them.

This election year, look before you retweet. Don’t be played for a sucker.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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