When I was in high school, a number of jokes made the rounds (from some proximate cause which I no longer remember) about the density of Minnesotans. Ones like “Why did the Minnesotan lose his job at the M&M factory? Because he kept throwing out all the W’s.” It was hard not to be reminded of those jokes the other day when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) said fining social media companies for failing to deactivate “bots” was “a great idea,” elaborating: “The idea of a fine is like when a company dumps toxic waste, makes a Superfund site, they’re on the hook financially for the damage they cause.” Not a very exact analogy: social media companies do not themselves dump the waste, they simply own the sites at which the waste gets dumped; they are akin to landlords who rent land to companies which dump waste. And whenever foreign agents pretend to be Americans on US-headquartered social media, they are doing so either because our own counterintelligence does not know it, or instead because it does know it and wants to monitor it; in neither case can the same government which failed to warn the companies, whether through ignorance or design, proceed to levy fines on them. Otherwise it would be like intelligence agencies spying on the Trump campaign instead of warning it about the nefarious Carter Page. Or like the Broward County sheriff blaming the NRA for the Parkland shooting. Uh, wait….
Twitter at the end of January put out two statements detailing the measures which it takes “to detect and prevent bad actors from abusing our platform,” which include “new techniques for identifying malicious automation (such as near-instantaneous replies to Tweets, non-random Tweet timing, and coordinated engagement)” and “reCAPTCHAs to validate that a human is in control of an account”; it reports that “we detect and block approximately 523,000 suspicious logins daily for being generated through automation.” It sounds like Twitter is being very proactive, and politicians who want to be helpful should suggest what more it could do (if any one of the 535 Members of Congress could identify a single step Twitter is not now taking which it might take to secure its platform), or require US-based social media companies to guard against interference by foreign governments (i.e., to do things which most of them are probably doing already), rather than threatening them with fines, especially when they do neither have enough understanding of the technology to assess the degree to which foreign interference would be due to the negligence of the service provider, nor the capacity to assess the “damage” inflicted by tweets.
Twitter has promised to remain vigilant, and so, in case someone from the company should chance to read this essay on the internet, I would suggest to them that they, in their search for Russian bots, look very carefully—and I do mean, very carefully—at accounts which purport to belong to American liberals, but nevertheless treat conservatives and Republicans civilly, or which purport to belong to Never-Trumpers, but nevertheless make a sane impression. The odds are quite good in each case that the account-holders are mere fictions, created by foreign nationals unfamiliar with the intemperate intolerance of the progressive left on the one hand, and with the sanctimonious delusions of the pseudo conservative opponents of Trump on the other.
Last week in the Des Moines Register Kathie Obradovich published an essay entitled “Loose tweets sink democracy: How Americans can stop colluding with the Russians.” She began her article by quoting the WWII slogan “Loose lips sink ships,” which concerned Americans keeping secret information which would benefit the enemy, and suggested a modern replacement: “Today, with all the talk of Russia waging cyber-warfare on American elections, we need a new campaign: Democracy dies when you share lies. Know it’s true before you tweet.” She drew attention to Twitter reporting on its “retroactive investigation” of “malicious activity in the 2016 election,” highlighting “that it had discovered more than 50,000 Russia-linked accounts that posted automated material about the 2016 election,” but failing to note that Twitter in the very same breath revealed that these “Russian-linked” accounts represent “approximately two one-hundredths of a percent (0.016%) of the total accounts on Twitter at the time”; similarly, she did not mention that accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, while responsible for approximately 176,000 tweets in the ten weeks before the election, tweeted on topics related to the election only about 8.4% of the time: hardly causes for Americans to tremble under their beds.
It is true that a federal grand jury, in the preceding week, had issued indictments sought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian companies, largely for posing as Americans and sowing discord on social media, but much of the information contained in the indictment is simply a rehash of an article on the IRA published by Adrian Chen in the New York Times Magazine over a year and one-half before. In her short essay Obradovich passed from being hysterical in the sense “irrational from fear, emotion, or an emotional shock” to being hysterical in the sense “causing unrestrained laughter” (Dictionary.com), for the remedy which she proposed for the problem which she perceived is ludicrous: “If no reputable media outlets are reporting a story, it should be a big, fat clue that its [sic] either false or unverified.” I pass over the fact that she is demanding that people engaged in the simple act of retweeting hold themselves to a higher standard than the FBI and the DOJ displayed before the FISC, when they made information which was both “false” and “unverified” the basis for an application to spy on an American citizen; with “reputable media outlets” she is presumably denoting the legacy media outlets which have repeatedly published fake news. A good recent example of the unreliability of the MSM is provided by Politico, which promoted a theory advanced by Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA), to the effect that the Twitter hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo (used to support release of the majority memo on the House Intelligence Committee which detailed FISA abuse) was being spread by Russian bots, even though it had been refuted more than once by Twitter. The beauty of social media, on the contrary, is that it empowers citizens themselves to decide what is newsworthy, rather than agreeing that “news” is limited to the narrative, which the MSM happens to be pushing that day. Obradovich actually claims that “there are many credible fact-checking sites that research political claims,” as if they were any freer from bias than other sites on the Internet. Her other recommendation, “check out the online profiles and feeds of the people you’re ‘friending’ or following on social media” in order to “block and report bots,” is superfluous, and not as easy as it sounds: Twitter in its original statement disclosed that “a few accounts” among those suspended “were restored to legitimate users,” which underscores the difficulty in determining whether accounts belong to genuine individuals or not.
We would have something to worry about if the Russkies had figured out a way to affect voter registration rolls or the tabulation of votes. Again, it would be a matter of grave concern if the Russkies were behind the political violence (also known as “terrorism”) to which left-wing groups like Antifa and Black Lives Matter have resorted. But Boris and Natasha are not the foreigners who are threatening our elections. As J. Christian Adams maintains in an essay published in The Hill, “the real foreign influence in our elections” is voting by non-citizens; he points out that the election crimes branch in the Justice Department has not brought a single indictment for alien voting in nine years, although an alien who both registers and votes commits two felonies and one misdemeanor, and sensibly argues: “When you don’t enforce criminal laws prohibiting foreigners from voting, you get more foreigners voting. Rosenstein should be as zealous in supporting prosecutions for direct foreign influence in our elections as he is in worrying about Russian tweets.”
Russians spreading lies is hardly a problem. There is a very good reason no one noticed any Russian lies in the midst of the 2016 campaign: they were indistinguishable from the American ones, just as the fake account-holders mimicked Americans. A certain percentage of political tweets on any given day, but a higher percentage in the heat of a campaign, are lies, i.e., the tweeter knows that they are false; another very great percentage are false, but tweeted in good faith by sincere but ignorant persons. Of one thing we can be certain: there is no reason to put any credence in the slogan “Democracy dies when you share lies.” If that were true, this country would have died aborning.
But we don’t have to go back so far. Now, a lie is not the same thing as a broken promise. When George H. W. Bush said in 1988 “Read my lips: no new taxes,” he meant it; in retrospect it is clear that Bush believed that as much as he believed anything about domestic policy, but that he did not believe it very deeply, because he in fact did not have any deeply held beliefs in that area. A rather spectacular example of a lie is John F. Kennedy campaigning in 1960 with a pledge to close the “missile gap”; although intelligence officials had earlier believed that one existed, by the time of the campaign they no longer so believed, but their new finding that the US was superior was secret; although Kennedy was briefed by the CIA during the campaign and made aware of the new assessment, he continued to criticize the Eisenhower Administration—of which his opponent, Vice President Richard M. Nixon, formed a part—for the “missile gap,” secure in the knowledge that Nixon, a far more honorable man than himself, would not disclose the still-secret assessment of the intelligence community that one did not and never had existed.
Back in the 1980s, at a meeting of the National Governors Association, some federal official or another, about to share an unpleasant truth with the governors, began by remarking: “It’s not part of my job to lie to people.” Gov. Edwin Edwards (D-LA) leaned forward into his microphone and replied: “It’s a very big part of mine.” One cannot say that most of the statements made by political candidates in America are lies, but some certainly are; others are false, but considered accurate by those making them, whether because the candidate is not very bright, or because the candidate, despite being bright, is forced to have opinions on a large number of issues, not all of which s/he can be expected to master; very many, perhaps most, of the political statements made in campaigns are at least somewhat misleading, being in the category of half-truths. In short, a few drops of Russian disinformation in a sea of American misinformation cannot possibly have any effect.
Some leftist might happen upon this essay and resist—they call themselves “the resistance,” after all—my attempt to assuage his, or her, fear that Russians will soon dominate us through a dastardly plot to disguise themselves as Americans on Twitter. And if s/he is looking for someone to blame for the incidence of disguised Russian tweeting during 2016, I would point him or her to Peter Strzok: he was chief of the Counterespionage Section of the FBI at the time, but too busy trying both to whitewash the crimes of Crooked and simultaneously to frame Donald Trump to notice the tweets of bots.
The most interesting aspect of the indictments is their timing. They were announced in the same week as the school shooting in Parkland, Florida: the shooting came on Wednesday (14 Feb.), the indictments on Friday (16 Feb.); on Thursday and Friday (15-16 Feb.) the public learned that the FBI had dropped the ball twice: first came news of the earlier failure, from 24 Sept. 2017, in which two agents from the Mississippi field office did not follow up a posting on a YouTube video; then we learned of the later failure, from 5 Jan. 2017, in which an “intake specialist” or supervisor on the tip-line did not pass along to the Miami field office the very full account of the shooter provided by a tipster sometimes described as someone close to him, sometimes said to be his aunt. Ms. Obradovich apparently takes these indictments seriously, saying “we can and should sanction Russia and try to prosecute their operatives.” Don’t start pressing your dress for the arraignment, sister! It seems obvious enough that Mueller, as a former Director of the FBI (2001-2013), partly out of residual loyalty to the organization which he once led—or rather, misled—, chose on that Friday to indict 13 Russian nationals who will never be extradited and therefore, never tried, in order to keep the nation from focusing on the bungling of the FBI. But he had another, far less creditable motive: the Public Access Line, located in Clarksburg, West Virginia, was set up only six years ago, in 2012; until then, tips were handled by FBI agents in the 56 field offices; the director at the time of this centralization, the genius who pulled the FBI agents off the tip-line, was none other than Robert Mueller. To be blunt: the ill-advised reform of the tip-reporting process by Mueller as FBI Director contributed to the Parkland massacre, and his staging of sham indictments two days later reveals (to borrow a phrase from lawyers) a “consciousness of guilt.”
A vice president of Facebook recently tweeted that Russians only spent $46,000 on advertising before the election, and that the ads in any case were not designed to influence the election; by comparison, the two major-party candidates spent $81 million on Facebook-ads. Paltry though the sum of $46,000 is, we have to remember how poor Russia is as a country; Laura Ingraham has more than once observed that Russia has a smaller economy than France (no. 5 in 2017), which is true, as far as it goes, but does not go far enough: their GDP (no. 12) is in fact only about ¾ as great as that of Italy (no. 9). The sum of $46,000, then, real money to the Russians, and it would go a long ways in a place like North Korea. It is hard to imagine a less effective use of their money than social-media posts; we should actually be quite happy to see them squandering in such a fashion what to them is a scarce resource, and hope that, in the face of the countermeasures undertaken by the social-media giants, they do not give up without a fight; our government should be working behind the scenes to keep the countermeasures from becoming too effective, to deter Russia from moving on to more effective strategies.