About 2,300 years ago, Aristotle told us that art imitates life. Sometimes the opposite is also true: life imitates art. So it is with what we have learned from the congressional investigation of the Russian government’s use of Facebook to interfere with the US elections.
The motive for Russian interference today reflects an episode of Rod Sterling’s The Twilight Zone over a half century ago. The story, Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, aired for the first time on March 4, 1960, in the midst of the Cold War. Life imitates the Monsters on Maple Street. More about that in a moment.
There is nothing new under the sun and there is nothing new about Russian interference. The Russians (and the Soviets before them) spread agitation-propaganda, or “agitprop,” a Russian blend of agitatsiya (agitation) and propaganda (propaganda). Its purpose is to sow discord, fan hatred.
In the 1960s, some conspiracy theorists believed that the CIA invented the AIDS epidemic, as part of a germ warfare program and accidently released, or intentionally released it to kill homosexuals and blacks. We know now that the KGB planted that story and others to create tension and spread disagreement all for the sake of encouraging democracies to turn on themselves. The KGB planted stories that the CIA plotted JFK’s assassination and that “Reagan Means War” in 1984. The list is so extensive that there are books written on “dezinformatsiya.” Conspiracy theorists have a friend in Russia.
Non-democracies spread fake news to undermine democracy and manipulate people. One recent study concluded that 30 countries, including Russia, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Turkey, employ armies of “opinion shapers” to spread government views, drive particular agendas, and undercut government critics on social media. The Russian government is especially sophisticated and uses bots, social media, and fake news to manipulate democracy in both the United States and Europe.
There is nothing unusual, or even new, in all of this. When we express surprise, we emulate French Captain Renault in Casablanca who said, “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!” (Right after that, an employee says to him, “Your winnings, sir.”)
What we know of Russian interference tells us much about Putin, the former KGB operative, and much about ourselves. Russia used Facebook and other social media in the year or so preceding the 2016 presidential election, and the period following, to sow discord and mayhem. The point is to amplify social divisions, so Russia targets groups based on race and religion as well as gun ownership, the Confederate flag and Ivanka Trump’s jewelry line. The Russian Facebook postings stoked fear and anger by promoting opposite sides of the political spectrum—by simultaneously promoting (to different audiences) rallies for “Blue Lives Matter,” and “Black Lives Matter.” Russia is an equal opportunity maligner.
Putin’s Russian operatives paid Facebook for advertisements to attack both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. For example, in May 2016, a Russian-backed Facebook page (United Muslims of America) urged Muslims to rally to support a new Islamic Center in Houston. That very same day, another Russian-backed Facebook page (calling itself Heart of Texas) urged a protest against the very same center. In another case, one advertisement focused on police wives while another, that same month, targeted people interested in the Black Lives Matters movement.
Russian operatives created fake Twitter accounts as early as 2009, using the names of politicians (@GeorgeSchultz) or political organizations (@NewYorkDem, @tpartynews), or news media (@TheTimesOfLondn [intentional misspelling]).
What did all this activity cost the Russian operatives? Pocket change. The “Internet Research Agency,” (a Russian organization) spent $46,000 on ads for the 2016 election. (This organization was buying Facebook ads long before the election; it bought ads during a two-year period.) Facebook tells us that these Russian posts constituted only 0.004% of Facebook posts, or one out of 23,000 pieces of content on Facebook.
On Twitter, Russian-backed groups spent about $235,000. For a government the size of Russia, that number is a rounding error. In comparison, the Clinton-Trump campaigns together spent $81 million on Facebook. Hillary Clinton’s campaign, along with super PACs supporting her and the Democratic Party joint fundraising committees spent, for all advertising and campaign expenses, $1.4 billion! The comparable figure for the Donald Trump campaign was $958 million (or, about 68% of what Clinton spent).
Fusion GPS is the firm that the Clinton research firm paid to compile the so-called “Trump dossier” (a dossier we now know is false). Fusion GPS also played on both sides of the street. It developed a second dossier that claimed financial misconduct by major contributors to the Clinton Global Initiative.
Why would Russia spent money (a paltry sum to be sure, for any government the size of Russia) to create conflicting advertisements that would simultaneously promote, and attack Islam? Or that promote and attack both Clinton and Trump; or promote the Black Lives Movement while simultaneously criticizing it, or urge a rally to support a new mosque, while also promoting a rally against the mosque?
The time is the early evening, on a Saturday, and the place is Maple Street, a typical neighborly American community. Children are playing in the yards, while adults chat with each other on the sidewalks. Then, all the power goes off, after a flash of light accompanied by a roar. One resident volunteers to walk over to the next street to see if the power outage has extended that far. Then, a little boy, Tommy—not an adult— plants an idea. He says he’s read a story about an alien invasion that caused a similar outage. Tommy says the alien monsters are disguised as a typical family, and they do not want anyone to leave the street.
One adult says, “The kid tells us a comic book plot and here we stand listenin– .” But others want to hear what Tommy says.
Then an adult tries and fails to start his car. After he leaves, the car mysteriously starts on its own. A neighbor asks, is this person the alien? Another person observes that has seen him out at night looking at the sky! “No,” responds the accused, “I just have insomnia.” Another neighbor, Steve, says that we should not start a witch hunt, blaming each other with unfounded allegations. But another adult questions Steve, “Why did you build that ham radio?” Was it to communicate with other aliens?
It’s now getting dark, and the neighbors see a shadow. A woman shrieks, people panic, and Charlie grabs a shotgun from a neighbor and shoots the strange figure. Charlie made a tragic mistake, for he just killed his neighbor, the one who had volunteered to check the next street over. Maybe Charlie shot the neighbor because he knew that neighbor had evidence that Charlie was the alien. No, claims Charlie. “How was I supposed to know he wasn’t a monster or something?”
Then, the lights suddenly go on in Charlie’s house. Why does he now have electricity? Charlie runs in panic, while the crowd chases him. “We’ve got to get Charlie.” “He’s the one.” Charlie says, “It’s Tommy. He’s the one.” Tommy seems to know a lot about the aliens. Others blame the man whose car started on its own.
The episode closes with two new figures talking to each other about what they both are witnessing. One says to the other, “Understand the procedure now? Just stop a few of their machines and radios and telephones and lawn mowers…throw them into darkness for a few hours and then you just sit back and watch the pattern.” The pattern is the same, says the space alien. “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find…and it’s themselves. And all we need do is sit back…and watch.”
Then we hear Rod Sterling’s concluding narration:
The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children…the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined to…The Twilight Zone!
Now we know why Putin, by spending only a few hundred thousand dollars, in an election that cost the candidates $1.4 billion, is sitting in the Kremlin laughing.