Last week, nearly 700,000 Twitter users were told that they unwittingly interacted with the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that tried to influence the 2016 election. “Twitter said that it had identified 3,814 IRA-linked accounts, which posted some 176,000 tweets in the 10 weeks preceding the election, and another 50,258 automated accounts connected to the Russian government, which tweeted more than a million times,” The Washington Post reported.
The news gave University of Washington Professor Kate Starbird and her academic colleagues an idea. They had recently authored a paper analyzing how Americans discussed police shootings on Twitter in 2016, focusing on the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. Their lab even created a “shared audience graph” that mapped out individual accounts participating in that political conversation: One cluster was organized around #BlackLivesMatter and another around #BlueLivesMatter.
Were any of the folks in those conversations Russian trolls?
In fact, “When Twitter released the 1st batch of accounts related to the RU-IRA troll factories, we cross-referenced those with our #BlackLivesMatter & #BlueLivesMatter data,” Starbird wrote on Twitter, and sure enough, “some of the most active & most influential accounts ON BOTH SIDES were RU-IRA trolls.”
Different Russian troll accounts were posing as supporters of #BlackLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter, influencing the conversation in America from both sides of the debate. Presumably they did not add comity or inspire constructive dialogue.
Starbird went on to share a new data visualization:
Here’s a similar graph, made from a slightly different network property (RTs rather than shared audience) that shows retweets of RU-IRA trolls (in orange).
U.S. political left on the left, political right on the right.January 20, 2018
“In other words,” she wrote, “there are paid trolls sitting side by side somewhere in St. Petersburg hate-quoting each other’s troll account, helping to shape divisive attitudes in the U.S. among actual Americans who think of the other side as a caricature of itself.”
The paper-length writeup of her findings expands that point:
On both sides, we see troll accounts gaining traction in polarized, audience-driven discourse. This might suggest that, in the bounds of this conversation, RU-IRA troll accounts capitalized on the crowdsourced nature of the conversation by feeding content into both sides of an information network characterized by divergent and competing frames.
We further note that the discourse and contention tied to the *LM hashtags exists almost exclusively within the bounds of American domestic politics, rather than on the international stage. The presence of RU-IRA trolls in this conversation implies a calculated entry into domestic issues with the intent to polarize and destabilize.
It isn’t clear how successful these Russian troll accounts were in affecting the way Americans think about these issues—and most of our country isn’t even on Twitter.
Still, two striking conclusions can be drawn.
- As I argued last year, citing evidence of Russian interference in other domestic debates, Internet users should show more charity to competing political tribes and exhibiting less pessimism about U.S. politics. “Yes, there’s plenty of homegrown ugliness … Yet it’s certain that at least some of the off-putting behavior that the most digitally engaged Americans encounter is fakery.”
- When Russian trolls went searching for a promising issue that they could use to polarize Americans and destabilize the United States, they decided to add fuel to the debate surrounding #BlackLivesMattter. And a few months later, President Trump and Vice President Pence decided to add fuel to that same fire, picking needless, calculated, divisive public fights with the kneeling NFL players.
That convergence is alarming.
I am not implying that Trump and Pence coordinated with Russia. They surely picked a fight with Black Lives Matter totally independently of any foreign machinations. What I am saying is that the Trump/Pence coalition benefits from an angry, polarized, divided nation, without which their long-shot bid for power would’ve failed.
And their ongoing pursuit of domestic political power continues to create incentives for them to pick at the same scabs and stoke the very same tensions as adversaries who seek to destabilize the U.S. by pitting its citizens against one another.
Unlike the Russians, their desired end is not to divide Americans.
But if the share of today’s whites who regard black NFL players as uppity ingrates significantly shrinks; if fear of Muslim immigrants wanes; if native-born Americans bear less animosity toward undocumented Mexican immigrants, regardless of their views on border security or illegal immigration; then all of those wins for American unity would be blows to the political prospects of Trump, Pence, the GOP in the 2018 midterms, and the foreign adversaries who want to weaken the United States.
Thus, they divide Americans as a means to an end, and the GOP as a whole is implicated. The deal with the devil that Republicans made by embracing a charlatan birther, sticking with him through a bigoted campaign, and propelling him to a victory that thrilled the likes of Richard Spencer has a clause that does ongoing harm to our country: One of America’s two political parties now benefits politically, in the short term, from the polarization of the country along racial and ethnic lines, just as surely as the Republican Party of 1968 and 1972 benefited from that era’s tumult and division.
Not all or even most Trump supporters are racists or authoritarians, but the 2018 midterms will go better for the GOP if turnout among racists and authoritarians is strong, and it will go poorly for the party if anti-authoritarians turn out in record numbers. That is the unenviable incentive structure that Trumpism creates.
So next time Trump takes to Twitter to needlessly elevate a polarizing issue to the forefront of American public discourse from his divisive, often juvenile bully pulpit, don’t imagine that any retweets from Russian troll accounts suggest collusion.
Rather, the awful truth is that stoking whatever divisions most polarize American citizens just happens to be in the political interests of both our president and of the foreign actors who want to see America weakened by demagoguery and infighting.
Trump doesn’t want to weaken America. He simply hungers for power and attention, and as has been the case his whole life, if others must suffer negative consequences so he can feed his appetites, he’ll proceed, whether with malice or by deceiving himself about the nature of his own actions.
For as long as it lasts, Trumpism will retard America’s ability to be great.