“Americans are now motivated to leave their couches to take part in political action not by love for their party’s candidate but by hatred of the other party’s candidate. . . . Americans now bear such animosity toward one another that it’s almost as if many are holding up signs saying, ‘Please tell me something horrible about the other side, I’ll believe anything!’ Americans are now easily exploitable, and a large network of profit-driven media sites, political entrepreneurs, and foreign intelligence agencies are taking advantage of this vulnerability.”—Greg Lukianoff & Jon Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018)
Before the Russia Investigation, I often worried about the increasing ease with which people can silence critical voices in Social Media Land. In an essay entitled “In Praise of Internet Trolls”—an essay which I now sorta regret writing—I maintained that: “If Socrates was alive today and on Facebook he’d be that annoying guy that keeps asking uncomfortable questions, bringing up annoying facts.” The essay ended with the following admonition: “It is better that ten guilty trolls slip through the cracks and crash your online party than that one innocent Socrates suffer in silence on your Blocked People list.”
But given what we now know about the extent of Russian meddling in Social Media Land, I must confess that I find it considerably harder to wholeheartedly extol the virtues of openness. It’s not that I’ve changed my mind; it’s that I’ve lost the courage of my convictions. The Open Society is starting to look a whole lot like The Undefended City. Our enemies have been slipping Trojan Horses through the cracks in our city walls—cracks made wide by our commitment to openness. We’ll have to be less tolerant of trolls in the future, far more suspicious of them, far more willing to reach for the hemlock. Will this come at a cost? Absolutely. Is there another way? I doubt it.
These days, you need to assume that anyone with a fishy profile who’s too crazy progressive, too crazy pro-Trump—too crazy anything really—is in fact a paid troll working for an organization that wishes to manipulate you. People that I was Facebook friends with for years—people with lots of more or less benign online interactions, pictures of kids, pictures of vacations, etc.—turned out to be fake accounts. These troll farms go to great lengths to achieve a kind of verisimilitude which passes for authenticity.
I’ll leave you with something I read this morning. I really cannot recommend this book enough. It came out last week and it may end up being the most timely book of 2019:
“We’ve fretted about attacks on our power grid, on our water supply, on hospitals, or on our air traffic control computers. Yet, in 2016, when Russia hit us with what was our first true cyber Pearl Harbor, they attacked a soft spot we’d never thought about. Russia attacked America’s confidence in America. They sought to undermine our belief in our own government, our ability to participate in our own democracy . . . . Russia realized that our national confidence was more delicate than it had been in years—and they exploited this insecurity online. They amplified our own messages attacking each other, they stoked our own anger, they weaponized our own hyperpartisanship. It was easy for Russian trolls and bots to hide among the many Americans angry with their present—and worried about their future. America was, as one friend of mine said, ‘dry tinder for the Russians.’ And over the last year, those who have sought to exacerbate these divides have continued to advance the work of the Russian government. You only need to log on to Facebook or Twitter these days to see that our hatred for ourselves—our distrust of each other—is leading us to doubt proud historical traditions, to question bedrocks of our democracy . . . . The very online tools that a decade ago we hoped would usher in a new era of openness and participatory democracy have instead been turned into tools of hate that spread disinformation and stoke anger with ease.”—John P. Carlin, Dawn of the Code Wars (2019)