The release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians charged with interfering with the American election added extra proof to what many already suspected and knew of Russia’s 2016 meddling. The 37-page indictment added plenty of new details to the far-reaching efforts of Russian operatives’ efforts to use social media to turn Americans against themselves. The most disturbing aspect of it may be just how easy it was for a small group of dedicated people with some money to implement it – and the fact that there’s little to stop them from carrying it out again in 2020.
On that front, it’s time for Iowa Democratic activists and voters to take account of the situation and prepare themselves mentally for the subversive messages that will certainly be aimed at them during the next Iowa Caucus.
Overall, Iowa Democrats would be wise to try and follow these ideas in 2020:
- Think critically about what news headlines you share and from which websites (and read the story first).
- Be extra careful in sharing extreme-sounding posts that appear in your news feed through ads.
- Do some quick research on any event promoted by a Facebook group you hadn’t heard of before.
- If you run a Facebook group or are a key Democratic activist, be on the lookout for false personas reaching out to you online or that are causing division in your group.
- Question whether messaging you see online from certain sources might be intended to solely divide people instead of starting conversations.
- Be nice to your fellow Democrat online and try to engage in discussions politely and in a constructive manner.
Now let’s go into some of these ideas in-depth.
The legitimacy of the caucus itself was a target of the Russians, who ran Facebook ads pushing the false conspiracy theory that “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus.” However, while the Russians began their plan in 2014, this specific ad and many other activities happened many months into 2016, mostly after the Iowa Caucus had already passed. It is highly likely during the 2020 race that foreign adversaries will target the caucus during the lead-up and night of, focusing in specifically on Iowa voters.
For the 2016 election, the Russians’ tactic was to cause damage to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s main Republican opponents, while promoting Trump and Bernie Sanders. But their overall strategy will be the same for the future: promote conflict and division among Americans and spread distrust of the democratic system.
That plan could take many forms in 2020, including helping or hurting any specific candidate, but we know many of the methods they’ll use in carrying it out. That begins with promoting divisive messages and conspiracy theories on Facebook.
To combat this, Iowa Democratic activists and voters need to be on guard when consuming and sharing news and political commentary online. Thinking critically about online news and social media should be something everyone involved in Iowa politics is doing anyway, but our resolve will be tested in a new and extremely important way in 2020.
For starters, that means being careful in sharing news headlines from websites of questionable or unknown reputation. During the 2016 election, I saw friends and acquaintances in Iowa Democratic social media circles share incendiary stories that conformed to their beliefs from any number of click-bait websites, conservative outlets and even some Russian-backed sources.
It took a while, but Democrats have mostly stopped sharing links from RT, which stands for Russia Today and is backed by the Russian government. They produced well-watched videos like this one below that were intentionally directed at supporters of Sanders that tried to whip up lingering anger and discontent in order to further divide Democrats.
Some on the party’s far-left in Iowa already routinely share news stories from The Observer that attack what they typically see as “establishment” Democrats or that highlight divides within the party. The Observer is a very conservative outlet that was recently owned and published by Jared Kushner, and which was a key outlet for Wikileaks. They often design stories specifically to heighten internal anger and division among Democrats, written in a way that is easily sharable by far-left activists. One story published last year entitled “Democratic Party’s Trouble In Iowa Foreshadows Dysfunction In 2020” was even very blatantly and obviously a result of Iowa activists pitching the story to the writer.
That is extremely dangerous behavior that can and will be exploited by a foreign adversary in 2020. Russians could easily run Facebook ads of suspicious and divisive news stories targeted at Iowa Democratic voters. How many will click the “share” button and give them more credibility?
And that’s part of the difficulty in fighting these efforts, and also why they’re often so successful. The stories they push aren’t so much completely made-up, actual “fake news.” It’s magnifying and inflaming already-existing political divides. They take issues that could be legitimate concerns for Democrats and blow them up into illegitimate proportions. Most of the hysteria around Clinton “stealing” the caucus resulted from a single video from a single precinct of a single volunteer where it wasn’t clear if she had conducted a second count of the Clinton group. That was distorted and hyped to high heaven by click-bait websites, partisans and outsiders to drive more paranoia and anger.
So, instead of discussing party differences in rational and productive ways, we’re yelling and screaming at each other and seeing members of our own party as “the enemy.”
These kind of attacks could be aimed at any kind of Democratic activist. An outside agitator could easily run some Facebook ads accusing a Democratic candidate of hating strong female leaders simply because they didn’t endorse Clinton in 2016. Some of the more extreme supporters of another candidate share it, leading to other voters seeing that candidate’s supporters as being extremely negative.
It doesn’t even have to be a Russian plot, of course. National click-bait websites love to promote incendiary headlines that only appeal to people’s passions and end up creating online flame wars between Democrats. Teenagers in Macedonia got rich off of writing fake news aimed at Trump supporters.
Another thing for Iowans to be on the lookout for is potential fake users and spies operating within their Facebook group. Mueller’s indictment revealed that the Russians had created false American personas online and stolen other Americans’ identities.
It would be rather easy for a Russian agent to create a fake Facebook profile, put up enough pictures and history to make them look like a real person, join a bunch of Iowa political Facebook groups and then start spreading divisiveness through comments and posts. We’ve all seen the kind of huge, highly unproductive battles that break out in various Iowa political groups online. Most of those are due to people with strong opinions who simply can’t communicate nicely with their fellow human beings. Imagine how much worse it could get if it were being driven by actual foreign adversaries intent on dividing party members.
Aside from the internal divisions, Mueller showed that the Russians also worked to pit Americans against each other in the streets. The Russian operatives created several political rallies that attracted actual Americans to them by promoting the events on Facebook and reaching out through their false personas to leaders of other Trump-supporting grassroots organizations. They arranged for one rally in Florida to construct a small prison cell to place a person wearing a Clinton costume and prison suit into.
Another tactic was to get two competing political groups to protest against each other, thus ramping up more hatred and division. Russians created several Black Lives Matter Facebook groups (some of which had hundreds of thousands of followers) and got both them and a Tea Party-like Republican group to face off in a rally outside an Islamic center in Texas.
Iowans should clearly be cautious in the future of rallies organized entirely on Facebook by groups that they’ve never heard of that don’t have any recognizable Iowa activist leading them. With so much national media in town during the caucus, foreign adversaries would love to get real Iowans shouting at each other or holding political signs designed to embarrass them or make them look extreme.
And indeed, that was another major goal of the Russians: highlighting the extremes of every American political faction to push people further apart. Iowans should question any suspicious online efforts to get them to say or do something on behalf of their candidate or a certain issue – is it actually designed to just make your side look extreme or bizarre to the broader electorate?
Finally, the most difficult thing to guard against in 2020 is cynicism itself. The Russians may have favored certain candidates in 2016, but all they really care about is destroying American democracy and weakening us. That will include driving Democrats apart and making it as difficult as possible to unite following the caucus and national primary. The Russians targeted Facebook ads to black Americans that accused Clinton of hating black people, and encouraged them to support Jill Stein instead.
Iowans will need to ask themselves whether certain criticisms they see of candidates or the party online are serious complaints or hyped-up misrepresentations aimed at division.
Again, with Trump clearly not planning to take any direct action himself to stave off further foreign interference in future elections, it may be up to voters themselves to ensure their tactics don’t work. Iowa voters and activists will be at the front line of that battle in 2020. They need to be prepared.
by Pat Rynard