Don't Forget to Adjust for Russian Trolls

Americans aren’t quite as bad as the internet has led us to believe.


Former President George W. Bush’s speech this week in New York City flagged a malign force in the world: the “sustained attempt by a hostile power” to feed and exploit America’s divisions.

“According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other,” Bush said. “This effort is broad, systematic, and stealthy, it’s conducted across a range of social-media platforms.” He urged new efforts to secure the American electoral system against subversion in the digital sphere.

I agree with that prescription. But I’ve long thought that evidence of online political manipulation by Russia suggests a need for something beyond changes in policy. Internet users should change their comportment, showing more charity to competing political tribes and exhibiting less pessimism about the state of U.S. politics.

Yes, there’s good cause for pessimism—and plenty of homegrown ugliness and idiocy.

Yet it’s certain that at least some of the off-putting behavior that the most digitally engaged Americans encounter is fakery created to make us think less of one another.

Our authentic online behavior isn’t quite as bad as we imagine.

This first occurred to me back in 2015 when I read Adrian Chen’s “The Agency,” an impressive look at an operation in St. Petersburg, Russia, where “an army of well-paid trolls” tried to wreak havoc in American communities, fabricating a “toxic fume” disaster in St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, and an ebola outbreak in Atlanta, Georgia.

Among their other exploits:

… A totally different group of accounts began spreading a rumor that an unarmed black woman had been shot to death by police. They all used the hashtag #shockingmurderinatlanta. Here again, the hoax seemed designed to piggyback on real public anxiety; that summer and fall were marked by protests over the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. In this case, a blurry video purports to show the shooting, as an onlooker narrates.

And this:

Spread Your Wings described itself as “a community for everyone whose heart is with America.” Spread Your Wings posted photos of American flags and memes about how great it was to be an American, but the patriotism rang hollow once you tried to parse the frequent criticisms of Obama, an incoherent mishmash of liberal and conservative attacks that no actual American would espouse. There was also Art Gone Conscious, which posted bad art and then tenuously connected it to Obama’s policy failures, and the self-explanatory Celebrities Against Obama. The posts churned out every day by this network of pages were commented on and shared by the same group of trolls, a virtual Potemkin village of disaffected Americans.

We’ve since learned that Russian trolls organized anti-immigrant rallies in two states, and posed online as Black Lives Matter supporters in one instance and as members of a Muslim American organization in another. They hoped to spark discord among factions of our fellow citizens. So if you’ve ever felt at a loss to understand how some of your neighbors could possibly reach certain conclusions, consider that they could have been targeted by teens in a Macedonian village bent on duping them.


And one needn’t have been targeted or duped by Macedonians or Russian ad buys to have been affected by foreign manipulation. As my colleague Alexis Madrigal noted:

… the 3,000 ads that have been linked to Russia are a drop in the bucket, even if they did reach millions of people. The real game is simply that Russian operatives created pages that reached people “organically,” as the saying goes. Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, pulled data on the six publicly known Russia-linked Facebook pages. He found that their posts had been shared 340 million times. And those were six of 470 pages that Facebook has linked to Russian operatives. You’re probably talking billions of shares, with who knows how many views, and with what kind of specific targeting.

We cannot fully conceive of the effort to manipulate us. But we can safely extrapolate its effect: to make us think marginally less well of our neighbors than they deserve.

It is cathartic to adjust for that thumb on the scale. Go ahead. Indulge. Next time an anonymous vulgarian slides into your Twitter mentions; or a Facebook page ostensibly allied with your ideological opposites posts an update more vile than you imagined them to be; breathe deep, summon higher-order thinking, and say, “Not this time, Vlad!” Why not err on the side of charity?