Social Media, Russians Undermine First Amendment

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

This past Saturday was the birthday of the signing of the Bill of Rights. Among the 10 amendments included in the bill was the First Amendment, which guarantees our fundamental rights of freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom to petition our government, and freedom of speech. It was signed by the nation’s founders Dec. 15, 1791.

It is considered one of the greatest foundational documents ever written to shape a democracy responsive to the citizens who elect those who govern. It gives us the power to hold our leaders accountable and voice our thoughts whether those in power like them or not.

But while The First Amendment is one of our founder’s greatest achievements it has now been shown also to be one of our greatest weaknesses.

Monday reports were published and show conclusively that Russia manipulated the social media platforms of Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube to promote the candidacy of Donald Trump. It was used to sow dissension and discord among American citizens using images, videos, and written pieces. That their efforts likely changed the outcome of the election is hard to deny – he won Michigan by fewer than 12,000 votes, Wisconsin by just over 27,000 and Pennsylvania by 68,000.

The study, ordered by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee and its chair Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), also shows that the manipulation of our social media platforms continues today.

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report found. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

The Russian influence campaign has sought to take advantage of issues that divide us including race, immigration, and gun control. It sought to motivate those who supported the Republican positions to get involved and vote while trying to discourage those who opposed them from going to the polls. It worked to undermine our faith in our electoral system.

Though most Americans only started hearing about the Russian attempts to influence our elections and political thinking during the 2016 election, it goes back much farther. According to the reports, they were already working on infiltrating our social media as early as 2009.

Through the creation of such sites and identities as “Heart of Texas,” “Blacktivist,” “BlackMatters US,” “Army of Jesus” and “Being Patriotic” the Russian operatives reached hundreds of millions of Americans, subtly manipulating their behavior. It got them to forward their messages to their friends and connections on social media.

It sought to undermine support for Hillary Clinton among Democrats opposed to an establishment candidate, urging voters to support Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Today, Russian’s Internet Research Agency continues to sow doubt in the country’s faith in its institutions through opposition to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the ties between the Trump organization and Russian contacts as well as its investigations into his financial dealings.

The study also highlighted the “belated and uncoordinated response” by social media platforms to the Russian attacks on our democratic processes and institutions. It shows that they are lagging behind the Russians as they evolve their strategies for infiltrating our internet communications.

Furthermore, the reports also pointed out that the America social media giants have been unwilling and slow to provide the information that would help researchers and investigators discover the extent to which the Russians have influenced American thinking.

Russian hackers know they have allies in America among Trump’s avid supporters willing to dismiss any claims of their interference or influence in the presidential election – just a clever line gives those supporters the ammunition they need to deny the allegations.

After the 2016 election,  the study found, “the Internet Research Agency put up some 70 posts on Facebook and Instagram that mocked the claims that Russia had interfered in the election, The New York Times reported. “You’ve lost and don’t know what to do?” said one such post. “Just blame it on Russian hackers.”

 “Like all great enemies, like all great foes they have found a way to make our greatest strength our greatest weakness,” presidential historian John Meacham said of the Russians, “which is our essential openness in a technological and digital sense.

“They are taking advantage of the American ethos of free expression to conduct a concentrated propaganda campaign on behalf of a particular person and that particular person’s political agenda,” he said.

“The failure of those who reflexively support the president to credit this kind of information, this kind of investigation, and to then allow it to shape their view of that president and that program, is one of the mysteries of the age,” Meacham said.

Such blind support is given the president by about 35 percent of the country. Trump’s visceral ties to his base shape the behavior of a Republican Congress afraid to act against him for fear of getting thrown out of office in a primary, or which cynically embraces all his faults to get their agenda through Congress as well as get their appointments to the Supreme Court.

“The sad truth is that these platforms are the greatest mechanism for spreading lies and spreading disinformation that any government could imagine building in history,” Nick Confessore, a political and investigative reporter for The New York Times said Monday morning.

They also work pretty good for spreading misinformation, lies, racism, and hatred at the very local level as well.

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