Over the summer, Facebook announced it had taken down close to 700 pages that were engaged in what it called "coordinated inauthentic behavior." At least a large portion of them were believed to be linked to Russian-backed efforts to influence American thought or foment discord.
Mostly foment discord. It appears to be working.
The New York Times this week published an interactive article that presents a series of pairs of Facebook posts that are similar to each other, one from a bogus, foreign-backed site, the other from a real and homegrown organization. It asks the readers to see if they can spot which of those posts are "deceptive."
It's actually a lot harder than one might think — and it's incredibly important that we start getting it right.
Many of us have probably unwittingly become mired in a propaganda campaign that includes fake news and posts that have no apparent purpose except to further divide people philosophically, flaming antagonism where it need not exist, even in the face of differing viewpoints on how things should work.
One of the most interesting aspects is that some of the fake posts are genuinely innocuous. They're informative or humorous or clever. And the speculated goal is that people will like them and start following those pages as the content becomes increasingly political or divisive — presumably subtly enough that we'll all buy into the messages without seeing that we're being used. And, bonus points, a bunch of us will share them and help spread the sites and grow their base of followers.
There's been a lot of talk about whether Russians tried to sway the last election. There seems little doubt efforts are being made to turn us against each other. Fake pages have been linked to topics like vaccines, playing both sides, the point apparently to rile people up regardless of what they believe on that and other issues.
No topic seems too off-topic for such an effort.
There was a lot to be said for the days when the ballot box was secret and you could cast your vote and go about your life without hating your neighbor because of his vote.
Those days are gone, and I believe such deliberate attempts to drive us apart via the coordinated social media fake news campaigns are at least partly responsible.
We should be able to disagree without going to war with each other. It calls to mind the thought that a house divided cannot stand — and a country split roughly in two will not get much that's productive done, making it perhaps vulnerable, or at least less powerful.
There's also a concerted effort to call anything one doesn't like "fake news." And when someone tries to debunk genuinely fake news, they're attacked, too. It's a worldwide problem, not just an American one. In Italy this week, a fact-checker received death threats.
It's hard to spot genuinely fake news, because some of the purveyors are pretty sophisticated. There are signs, like poor English — but a lot of Americans use poor English, too.
What isn't hard is basic fact-checking. There are sites that fact-check. As a side note, some of them are under attack, accused of "driving a political agenda." That's fake news. We can all google things that seem off and see if someone reliable has called it out as false or raised questions. Transcripts and videos of events often debunk fake news claims.
Before sharing a post that seems outrageous and creates rage, maybe we could try a little harder to see if it's true.
I'm going to do better. Please join me.