by Eric Jackson
This is about somebody else’s story, and my take on it, that was posted on The Panama News Facebook page.
- The post on Facebook is at https://www.facebook.com/thepanamanews/posts/10212751513976054?pnref=story
- The Washington Post story is at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2017/10/09/google-uncovers-russian-bought-ads-on-youtube-gmail-and-other-platforms/
- A take on the same thing by The New York Times is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/technology/google-russian-ads.html
And the overall importance of the story I posted?
I think it’s a tiny puzzle piece of circumstantial evidence, probably not so damning in itself, perhaps useful to show a pattern of conduct. Nothing to go to war about, but if there were a US Congress that cared about defending the United States against foreign intervention in US elections, it would be one item that ought to be considered when drafting new legislation.
Although I am an active Democrat, I think that proper legislation would be neither a matter of pointing fingers at Republicans and Russians nor an exercise in comforting assurances. One of the reasons why Donald Trump is president of the United States is that the Clinton Foundation, for all of the good works they did, was a political operation by which foreign governments, leaders and business interests domestic and foreign bought access to powerful and influential people, with the bet being that one of those, Hillary Clinton, would end up as president. It was also an inter-campaign political structure in which operatives out of political patronage jobs at the moment could be parked in well-paid foundation sinecures until the next campaign. And do some of the more brazen and indiscrete Israelis brag about how they control the US Congress? And has the United Arab Emirates’ Ambassador Otaiba secured US backing for the Sunni jihad against the Shiites with his parties in Washington? Although it would seem that it today’s US climate there is no such thing as national interest, there is and what happened in the 2016 election campaign flatters no side of the partisan divide and ought to be a concern for all Americans.
The reaction to it? Terrified Trump folks lashed out. More than 100 characters, almost all with no ties to The Panama News or its editor — not Facebook friends, not friends of friends, no ties to Panama, Latin America or the Caribbean — let loose a barrage of denial, dismissal and abuse.
But most probably, mostly not Trump folks. Mostly bots, fake characters made out of computer code and armed with a storehouse of memes and talking points, deployed to shout down conversations that an alt-right which learned its basic Internet stuff from a neo-nazi group called Stormfront and updated it with Russian computer technology thanks in large part to the largesse of the billionaire Mercer family. This stuff is being pulled in the politics of many countries now, in many cases by the same people. They used it for the “Yes” side in the UK’s Brexit campaign. They used it in failed attempts to bring neofascists to power in The Netherlands and France. They used it to get the alt-right represented in Germany’s Bundestag. They drive something from obscurity to the top of search engines and to the attention of fanatics who are real people, and the latter pile on. They used it, for example, to drive Holocaust denial to the top of Google search engines.
If you go to the Facebook post cited above and scroll down through all the stuff, you may notice that a lot of the protagonists, real or fake, have been blocked. It’s not out of fear that these personnae may become regular visitors to The Panama News Facebook wall, but to send a message to Mark Zuckerberg et al about bots and mass trolling tactics that need to be curbed. The use of bots to shout down discussion on a Facebook thread is not much different from the use of bots to send huge bundles of email to shut down or take over somebody’s email box or to force a way through an email address linked to a website into the controls of that website. Were US law enforcement interested in protecting anyone smaller than SONY they’d have long since applied existing computer crime laws to that sort of stuff against those without wealth or political connections. But now, of course, the United States has a president who deploys bots by the tens of thousands to distort online discourse. He probably had no personal knowledge of the bot/troll attack on The Panama News, but surely he approves. We are, after all, dealing with a guy who has been in bed with mobsters all of his adult life.
So what’s my policy with bots and trolls on The Panama News Facebook page? Any friend request from someone who does not appear to be a real person is rejected. People who are not Facebook friends who appear on my wall and tell me to shut up, or tell anyone else to shut up, get blocked. Those who appear not to be real people who jump into heated discussions on threads — whichever side of an argument they take — get blocked. Those who are neither friends, nor friends of friends and have no ties to Panama who come into a discussion to inject invective get blocked. This thread had me block more personnae that I have in all the years since 2009 when The Panama News Facebook page went up.
This sort of behavior has not gone unnoticed and finally the likes of Facebook and Google managements are being forced out of their “we’re just a neutral platform that’s run impartially by algorithms” willful ignorance — they call it “constructive knowledge” in Common Law legal systems — and into admissions about what goes on via the services they run. But the answers are not so simple. Many are the governments that would like to impose censorship over the Internet as their supposed response. Many are the governments that would seek national regulation over online services that cross borders at the speed of light, a tendency that could leave us with each advanced technological power with its own version of China’s firewall and the rest of the world subject to other countries’ online warfare. There are serious people, with various different approaches, thinking and writing about the problem. There are also some serious predators thinking about how they can take maximum advantage.
Against the backdrop of far-right cheering, we Democrats are divided. There are those who say that “the tyranny of data” obliges us to copy what the alt-right does. So we see a Democratic Facebook page with several times as many likes for a video than there are views showing on YouTube. The inept “experts” who pocketed a lot of money for running the woefully stupid Hillary Clinton general election campaign have had to leave jobs at the DNC or other sinecures, but most of them are still around in this or that political position and a cadre of wannabes and volunteers who learned what they know from these people are still around. And the facile response of too many of these people is that we should copy what the nazis do.
Me? I am a weird old hippie who fondly remembers what someone with very different politics than mine did way back when. Was American and world culture all locked up by Madison Avenue, with “expert criteria” — bendable by payola — about what will sell and what won’t? Frank Zappa derided “plastic people” and it caught on with the hippies, then seeped out into the general culture. The icon even got into Spanish a few years later, with Rubén Blades doing his rendition of the insult. Certain old norms were laughed into insignificance, even into bankruptcy, for a time. Of course, the purveyors of that stuff from the payola paradigm tended to be replaced by a new generation of morally similar hustlers. But still, we have a successful example of widespread cultural ridicule.
The troll bot technique is generally easy to spot, even in societies where the study of civics has been suppressed. It should be called out and mocked.
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