U.S. Voters Are ‘Vulnerable’ to ‘Foreign Manipulation,’ No Matter How Inept, The New York Times Warns
Russia has “reactivate[d] its trolls and bots ahead of Tuesday’s midterms,” The New York Times warns, aiming to “influence American elections and, perhaps, erode support for Ukraine.” According to Times reporter Steven Lee Myers, those online propaganda initiatives “show not only how vulnerable the American political system remains to foreign manipulation but also how purveyors of disinformation have evolved and adapted to efforts by the major social media platforms to remove or play down false or deceptive content.”
As with previous panics about Russian “election interference” that was intended to “sow chaos,” the details do not match the hype. The example that Myers leads with, a Gab account under the name “Nora Berka,” is supposed to illustrate how “vulnerable” voters are to online rants by Russians disguised as Americans and how cleverly those operatives take advantage of U.S. political divisions. But it actually shows how lame these efforts are and how implausible it is to suggest that they have any measurable impact on people’s opinions, let alone electoral outcomes.
“After a yearlong silence on the social media platform,” Myers breathlessly reports, Berka “resurfaced in August,” when she reposted “a handful of messages with sharply conservative political themes before writing a stream of original vitriol.” Berka’s posts “mostly denigrated President Biden and other prominent Democrats, sometimes obscenely.” They “also lamented the use of taxpayer dollars to support Ukraine in its war against invading Russian forces, depicting Ukraine’s president as a caricature straight out of Russian propaganda.”
How worried should we be that pseudonymous Russians linked to “the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg” are adding their voices to the cacophony that passes for online political debate in the United States? Very worried, Myers suggests: “The goal, as before, is to stoke anger among conservative voters and to undermine trust in the American electoral system. This time, it also appears intended to undermine the Biden administration’s extensive military assistance to Ukraine.”
Yet Myers presents no evidence to suggest that Berka-style commentary has actually advanced those goals. He tells us that Berka’s account, which he presents as a prime example of the “Russian trolls and bots” that were “called to action like sleeper cells” in August and September, “has more than 8,000 followers.” The account focuses “exclusively on political issues—not in just one state but across the country —and often spreads false or misleading posts.” Myers concedes that “most have little engagement,” although “a recent post about the F.B.I. received 43 responses and 11 replies, and was reposted 64 times.” If that is the most persuasive evidence of Berka’s influence that Myers can find, it seems safe to say the republic will survive her faux fulminations.
Myers says “a number of Russian campaigns” have “turned to Gab, Parler, Getter [sic] and other newer platforms that pride themselves on creating unmoderated spaces in the name of free s
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