During the 2016 election cycle, a large part of the Russian propaganda effort was aimed at spreading false stories on a number of fronts. One of these was the creation of websites that looked like they were those of local U.S. news organizations, and sometimes even contained many actual news stories, but also contained conspiracy theories or simple lies hiding among the real news. Those sites are once again appearing in large numbers. Meanwhile, social media is seeing a sharp spike in new accounts as troll farms crank out large numbers of false identities to cite the false stories posted by these false news outlets. 2020 is already looking a lot like 2016 … except worse.
As the Lansing State Journal reports, the not-actual-news sites are popping up all over Michigan. Nearly 40 sites have appeared in recent days with titles like the Ann Arbor Times and the UP Gazette. Each of these sites includes some local news, often lifted from real news sites in the area. But they’re also heavily saturated with political messaging. The growing number of sites, and the duplication of articles found on real news outlets, means that readers searching for a story can often end up on the fake site rather than the original source—especially when bots and trolls have boosted the apparent importance of the false site by creating frequent links and click-throughs.
Not surprisingly, these proliferating sites have a “conservative” bent and include not just national stories, but also stories targeting local representatives and state officials. That includes some stories that are strongly slanted and others that are simply made up from whole cloth, such as claims that the state government is sitting on an unspent mountain of highway money while the infrastructure crumbles.
Elevating these sites, along with tweets, Instagram messages, Facebook pages, and other social media drenched in propaganda, is the mission of the stacks of new troll accounts noted by CNN Business. Prominent in the efforts so far is a group of Instagram accounts that are designed to look like they belong to people from different states with different backgrounds and political leanings who share just one common trait: a strong dislike for Joe Biden. The type of memes and statements being spread by these accounts are identical to the sorts of comments used in 2016 to build up a deep animosity toward Hillary Clinton and shape the idea that she had done … something crooked, even if no one was quite sure what it was.
Another similarity with the troll activity in 2016 is the use of race in messaging. Black communities were the largest target of Russian propaganda in the 2016 campaign, with the goal of reducing enthusiasm for Clinton and harming voter turnout. That same pattern is already visible in what’s appearing for 2020.
Those fake Instagram accounts supposedly represent groups called things like @michigan_black_community and similar names meant to make it seem that they are supported by activists within the African American community. Those accounts agree on a lot of things, including opposition to Trump, but they also make frequent attacks on Biden, uniting around the idea that if he is the candidate, black voters should sit out the election.
A similar effort has been extended to other groups in 2020. There are feminists … against Biden, LGBTQ rights advocates … against Biden, and environmentalists … against Biden. There are also accounts in the mix hoping to mine divisions among supporters of various Democratic candidates, such as accounts pretending to be Bernie voters who will go for Trump or stay home if Biden wins the nomination.
The early focus on Biden doesn’t mean that these accounts can’t make a sudden and miraculous switch in their hate-direction. Should Sanders or Elizabeth Warren do well in early voting, all of these groups can be expected to become “anyone but fill-in-the-name-of-leading-candidate-here” fans.
It would be nice to think that, four years on, Americans would recognize the signs of these often-automated hate-driven accounts. However, not only are the new accounts springing up by the thousands, but they’re already scoring eyeballs. Facebook reports at least 250,000 followers of accounts identified as Russian trolls.
And as this is happening, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell once again on Wednesday blocked a Senate vote on a bill to improve election security. It’s Russian troll season again, and the Republicans are welcoming them with open arms and a weakened election system.
Published with permission of Daily Kos