The conclusion in the front page story of the WSJ Business and Investing section ('Russian Accounts Scored on Facebook' Oct. 17) makes it clear the Russkies did indeed wreak havoc in our election - and manipulate just enough gullible brains to toss the election to Trump. As the article by Georgia Wells and Deepa Seetharaman puts it:
"Two accounts that Facebook Inc. said have ties to Russian operatives amassed more than a half million followers in the past couple of years with posts, ads and events that stoked strong emotions over such issues as race and immigration. Most followers never suspected that people with possible Russian ties were behind the accounts."
Of course, the ignorance of the recipients or followers rendered the texts, messages and fake news perfectly weaponized vehicles for brainwashing and propaganda.
Most ominously the piece goes on to note that "most users said the content seemed like something their peers would share."
In other words the Russians on troll farms like the Internet Research Agency were able to get right inside the heads of the targets. We now know, thanks to research published in the Atlantic, these mind manipulators were mainly elite Russian college students specializing in linguistics, journalism and psychology trained at a central troll farm in St. Petersburg.
These were savvy kids who mastered their "Americana" politics by watching cynical, Machiavellian fare like "House of Cards". By also using emotions and reading Americans' own emotional responses to race, Trump and immigration they were able to jack up their messages and twist them into fake news to mindfuck millions. How so? By using specially manipulated videos guaranteed to be shared by the gullible.
These included (ibid.): videos of two Baltimore homies ("Blacktivists") supporting causes in the black community while skewering Hillary Clinton as a "witch" at the same time usng hashtags such as #BlacklLives Matter. The fake videos included police allegedly shooting unarmed black men.
Another memetic infection compliments of these trolls was named "Secure Borders" which railed against illegal immigration. Their weaponized shtick was to publish "material such as a photoshopped image of a woman holding a sign reading 'Give me more free shit!'"
Such an image alone was worth about a million and a half shares - say on Facebook, or a half million retweets- multiplying the mindfuck effect. The reason? It deliberately embodied sentiments already felt by millions in key states, descendants of those who used to riff on about "welfare queens" in the Reagan era.
The primary social media platforms used for memetic infection were: Facebook, its Messenger and Instagram services, Twitter and YouTube. In other words, any medium that could easily be mounted for use as a memetic weapon to burrow inside suspectible brains - already amenable to the necessary predispositions.
The WSJ piece noted that "470 Russia-backed Facebook accounts including Blacktivist and Secured Borders quietly infiltrated communities on social media. The issues they targeted spanned the U.S. political and social spectrum, including religion, race, immigration, gun rights, and gay rights. "
"Facebook said the accounts were created by Russian entities to exploit tensions among Americans and interfere with U.S. elections".
To now take the time to quantify things a bit, the Columbia University Center for Digital Journalism found that 6 of the 470 Russkie fake accounts had reached 340 million people. That is a helluva lot of bang for the buck. Further, that tiny fraction "elicited 19.1 million interactions including likes, shares, and comments." Here the shares are the most crucial aspect because of the meme multiplier effect. One emotionally charged fake video shared with ten initial people who then share it with 10 others each, has enhanced the memetic infection power by 100. The magic of memetic compounding at work!
We may further inquire as to the extent of direct interference? In a separate WSJ article ('Russia-Tied Ads Set For Release', Oct. 12, p. A8) we learn:
"U.S. intelligence officials have concluded that a campaign authorized by the highest levels of the Russian government hacked into state election board systems and the email networks of political organizations to damage the candidacy of Democratic presidential nominess Hillary Clinton."
It is important to grasp here that the election board hacking and social media fake news strategies were not mutually exclusive The hacking attacks in fact complemented the initial propaganda, or information warfare attacks. The latter rendered hundreds of thousands of brains more averse to Hillary while the election hacking delivered dozens of vulnerable systems that might be useful - if compromised- to reinforce the scale of interference. If 1000 names in each precinct of the "Brexit" states (MI, WI, PA) could have the names or voter attributes altered, then overturning the election could became a real possibility since their electoral votes ultimately determined the winner.
Despite the facts of the case, and the fact the effects of subtle and not so subtle propoaganda are well known, there remain hardheads that don't accept it. For example, WSJ op-ed writer Mark Penn ('You Can't Buy The Presidency For $100,000') claims that "56 % of the ads ran after the election" meaning that only about "$44,000 was available to influence the result". But he mistakes money value for influence potential. Anyone who's really familiar with Russian tactics knows they are perfectionists in doing things on the cheap. What may seem like cheap to us, is gravy train status for them
Take the St. Petersburg troll farm, with its IRA contingent of elite university students - maybe a thousand of them. $44,000 could buy their talents for months - and at rate 2 or more times what they'd earn (in rubles) in any normal Russian job. Clearly, Penn is not au fait with different economies of scale and the impact differences.
Penn is also blinded by the "media tidal wave" trope. He writes:
"Every day, Americans see hundreds of ads on TV, in newspapers and magazines, on bill boards and smart phones. North Americans post to Facebook something like a billion times a day, and during the election many of those messages were about politics."
I brought this up with my psychologist niece Shayl (now completing a doctotate on the adverse effects of social media) and she saw through Penn's argument immediately. As she put it:
"People are bombarded by so many ads, so much stimuli daily that they simply tune out most as noise. It's kind of like a fly buzing in the background, very little notice is taken. It's only when a message strikes a particular emotional chord that it has any chance of actual psychological effect or influence. "
The thing is the weaponized Russkie Facebook stimuli - whether from Blacktivists or Secure Borders, were superbly designed to send hooks into millions of emotionally susceptible brains. If even a hundredth of them were influenced - say in the "Brexit" states (WI, MI, PA) - it could have tossed the 2016 election to Trump. I and many others, including Shayl, believe it did. The current media narrative is "that never happened" but to quote the late astronomer Carl Sagan: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."
Penn in the remainder of his op-ed repetitively discloses how mesmerized he is by money and numbers, e.g. "even a full $100,000 of Russian ads would have erased just 0.025% of Hillary's financial advantage" - still failing to process the power of one viral meme. He really needs to read biochemist Jacque Monod's final chapter of 'Chance and Necessity' - articulating the sheer infection power of a meme prepared just right - i.e. to parasitize a brain.
He confirms his memetic cluelessness by asserting:
"It takes tens of millions of dollars to deliver meaningful messages to the contested portion of the electorate."
In fact, as Shayl points out, given the "contested portion" is usually more emotionally volatile and vulnerable it only takes a few powerful meme- laden videos . If these are then shared by perhaps ten thousand followers, then it's feasible to alter an election outcome. This would be based on targeting three or so swing states with enough electoral votes to put Dotard over the top.
But don't wait for the media narrative to change. It's more important to get 'Muricans' to accept their elections are sacrosanct and totally secure - even if a few ads, fake news and hacks manifest. "Sure, we had some problems, yuh know, but none of them changed the outcome!"
Yeah, right! And I have two square miles of beach front in Barbados to sell you for a buck. A Bajan buck.