December is the month for retrospectives about the year’s most interesting news stories, and my nominee is the tale of the Russian Facebook advertisements, which burned across front pages a few months ago.
The ads in question were memes, manufactured and posted to a number of bluntly named, pseudo-American Facebook accounts in 2016 by workers at a troll farm in St Petersburg, Russia. There were thousands of these ads, it seems, plus parallel efforts on Instagram and Twitter. Between them, they reached over 100 million people.
The memes were big news for a while because they showed what Russian interference in the 2016 election actually looked like, in vivid color. Eventually the story faded, though, in part because it was superseded by other stories, but also, I think, because the Russian ad story was deeply distasteful to both sides of our atrophied political debate.
Take a moment to look up some of these false-flag proclamations — the ones produced for Facebook pages such as “Being Patriotic”, “Secured Borders” or “Army of Jesus”. They are nothing like the polished and scientifically tested Madison Avenue products that once alarmed our parents’ generation. This was low-budget stuff: ugly, loud and stupid — hectoring declarations in brightly colored script over stock photographs.
The ads were clumsily written. They were rife with spelling errors and poor grammar. Their grasp of American history was awful. And over them all hovered a paranoid fear that the powerful were scheming to flip the world upside-down in the most outlandish ways: to turn our country over to the undocumented … to punish the hardworking … to crack down on patriots and Christians … to enact Sharia law right here at home.
Which is to say, these Russian Facebook ads were exactly the sort of thing that real American rightwingers have been whispering for decades. The particulars have changed over the years, but the panic these ads try to evoke is precisely the same as it was when the right first discovered it could raise money by scaring people about Panama Canal giveaways and scheming communists in Nicaragua.
My favorite of these, without a doubt, is the one that shows Jesus arm-wrestling Satan to settle the election (to make things clear, the caption tells us that “Hillary is a Satan”). You are urged to “help Jesus win” by “liking” it. It is cheaply slapped together, pious and casually blasphemous at the same time. In other words, it is perfect.
For 70 years, conservatives trashed Democrats and liberals for being soft on communism if not outright agents of an enemy power. Today? It is the zealous defenders of American righteousness who seem to have been enlisted and played by Russian propagandists.
The St Petersburg trolls mimicked the red state ideology in its every paranoid detail: the proud defiant Southerner; the gun fetishist; the sniper with a heart of gold; the small-minded supporter of the local police force. What it all suggests (what it maybe was meant to suggest) is that now it’s the hyper-patriots and “real Americans” of the right who must live with the suspicion of being — yes — playthings of a foreign regime.
It boggles the mind. And yet liberals, who will embrace anything that might damage the right these days, weren’t really interested in this. Why?
Part of the reason, certainly, is because the Russian trolls also tried to mimic liberal activists such as LGBT and civil rights groups. More uncomfortable still is the way the Russian Facebook story struck at the very heart of the blue state ideology. For all too many Democrats, platforms such as Facebook and Twitter can only be understood in one way: devices of human liberation. They empower the weak. They give us democracy as in the Arab Spring. They spread Americanism worldwide.
We must not criticize the social media platforms for this episode, declared an op-ed in the liberal New York Times shortly after the Russian ads were exposed, because “Facebook and Twitter are just a mirror, reflecting us”. It is the same argument that defenders of culture industries have made for decades: that commercial speech is basically the vox populi by other means; that makers of movies and advertisements and algorithms are always blameless; that if we dislike what they show us, we must look to ourselves.
Such a tidy homily of corporate innocence. Unfortunately, the truth lies in the opposite direction. The social media platforms aren’t neutral arbiters, selflessly serving the needs of society. As is all too obvious now, they are monopolies that manipulate us in a hundred different ways, selecting our news, steering us towards what we need to buy. The corporate entities behind them wield enormous power in Washington, too, filling Democratic campaign coffers and keeping the revolving door turning for trusted servants. Those who don’t comply get disciplined.
The propaganda hijacking of social media hints at what these monopolies have made possible. And that is why I nominate Russian Facebook as the great under-examined political story of 2017: it had the potential to destroy the freedom fantasies of both sides simultaneously.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010