Twogaa Sunday Post – 10.13.19 (How is our Polarization Working?)
Thanks to Russia in 2014, we now know a lot about trusting our ingroup and hating the perceived out-groups. Will 2020 be any different? In the last election, the idea that Russia’s goal was to create social division and undermine democratic institutions is supported by the ways Russia-backed groups appear to have used social media during the campaign. Although it seems they aimed to help Trump candidacy, they did not target their efforts only to Trump voters or others on the political right. Their goal was to develop descension and disunity within the social consciousness, indeed, polarization between groups to the extent one group will not communicate with the other, only hate it.
How do they do this?
Well, you have to start with the fact that they are historical experts in their own country at creating this divisiveness in order for the Communist party to maintain power. Using a familiar formula, they set about seeing how it might work if secretly applied in America. One has to marvel at its effectiveness, the prodigy of which we are still experiencing today.
Russian organizations developed a bestiary of personalities, voices, and positions crafted to influence various groups, ranging from members of the LGBTQ community, to Black Lives Matter activists, to gun rights supporters, to anti-immigration zealots, and surprisingly, even to animal lovers. The goal was clearly the creation of descension, noncommunication between groups and polarized feelings of dislike, nonacceptance and even hate.
First, they infiltrate a group on Facebook or Twitter with the goal to establish trust with a broad range of demographic and interest groups in order to influence them, but you don’t know that this is really the Russians. October of 2017, the Russia-linked LGBT United Twitter account, for example, declared: “We speak for all fellow members of the LGBT community across the nation. Gender preference does not define you. Your spirit defines you.” What could sound more right, because it is right. But this is just the first step with the intention of developing a set of followers who could then be slowly exposed to political content. In other words, the goal was to get close, pose as a peer, and then exert influence.
After convincing users that they shared core beliefs and values, Russians used these platforms to widen the gap between right and left. Their “Heart of Texas” Facebook page tried to persuade Texans to secede from the nation. Their “Blacktivist” group agitated for protests, which they knew would end up in racial riots in Baltimore. One bizarre campaign included a contest titled “Don’t Shoot Us,” which encouraged Pokemon Go users to capture Pokemon near real-world sites of police brutality and name them after the victims.
Most interestingly, in none of these cases were group members pushed to accept views far from those they already held. The LGBTQ group, for instance, did not advocate for Trump; instead, social influence was used to push people to more extreme versions of the views they already held.
The picture begins to unfold that Russian propagandists were highly sensitive to the dynamics of social influence, as they utilized the social network of Facebook. Some of the Facebook content linked to Russian accounts were ‘PAGES” OR “Community pages” rather than groups. A Facebook “group” is primarily designed to facilitate among its members. A Facebook “page” is designed for an organization or celebrity to create a community of their followers. The distinction is important and is a keystone of Facebook social users’ organization. “Community pages” are somewhere in between: there, other users can sign up as “followers” of the page and can make posts directed to the community; but whoever created the page can make posts as well, which are targeted at and shared with the whole community.
Should you visit one of the Russian-linked community pages --- say, the LGBT United page, which was active as of March 2018 --- the first things you would have seen are the posts created by the group itself, identified as “LGBT” posts; the posts directed at the group from other members of the community could be found only by following a further series of links. In other words, the community page mimics a central network, with the page creator at the center. Rather than try to influence people in the center of the networks, the Russian accounts appear to have created star networks by creating affinity groups structured so that they could communicate to the whole community more easily than members could communicate with one another.
Of course, the mere ability to broadcast is not sufficient to create influence. You also need those to whom you are broadcasting to listen. This is where the value of creating and distributing content through groups comes in. Back to the “First Step,” it is defined by the subject of shared interests or agreements already in place --- be it the right to bear arms or the right to love kittens.
People are more susceptible to the influence they trust --- whether it be an evangelist describing what verse in the Bible means or a newscaster reading from a prompt. This means that establishing connections through affinity groups provides powerful tools of influence, especially when the influence tends to push group member's father in the direction that they were already headed. And if the purpose is merely to drive polarization --- as opposed to persuading everyone of any particular claim or ideology --- posing to people on both sides of an issue as someone who shares their opinions, and then presenting further evidence or arguments in support of those opinions, is very successful.
Will we see more of this as we approach the 2020 election?
As the seeds of polarization have already been planted and had time to develop, and as other countries have witnessed its success since 2014, we will see even more participation in the foreign design to keep America divided. The problem is how to spot it when it infiltrates a group that we belong to. That is very difficult if not impossible for the average internet or Facebook user. A safety net might be if we each seek moderation in our views instead of polarization.