Letter to Union Leader, published 29 Nov. 2021
A RECENT New Hampshire Sunday News had a front page story that started with “a social media post by a little known group,” which caught my attention. A second item, “Reactions to Rittenhouse verdict highlight country’s divisions” also did for similar reasons. A question we need to consider is “how much of the fuel being tossed on our divisive topics is from Russian, Iranian, Chinese, North Korean and other similar entities, which do not have America’s best interests at heart?”
These governments and their paid armies of trolls are out to create and foster division, chaos, and violence in America and other democracies. They join in the social media discussions — often creating fake groups, web pages, user accounts — literally in the thousands. Depending on their agenda, they may start fake stories, re-post/like/comment on controversial posts — and often do this on different sides of the same issue. Every potential point that may divide Americans is a candidate for amplification to increase divisiveness. They have done this with our elections, gun rights, Black Lives Matter, immigration, vaccines/anti-vaccines, masks — if it might get folks in the street, they are ready to fan the flames. Kyle Rittenhouse is likely to have encountered propaganda promoted by these players, and the communities who applaud or are appalled by the related court action are both targets for cyber-provocation by these entities.
I try to research posts based on the SIFT recommendations of Washington State University. My initial question was “is that source real?” My conclusion was “yes”, they do not appear to be a foreign shell, but real Americans. That the founders have served on local school boards and created a 503(c)4, which provides some verification of their physical reality. Our Russian “friends” could do some of these, but not all. I have researched some other “sources” and found the fingerprints of a fake, or more authoritative contradictory information.
Washington State University site — https://infodemic.blog — suggests these steps to increase confidence in messages about COVID, but these apply to all messaging as well: SIFT — Stop, Investigate, Find and Trace.
Before you share a post stop and cross check it. To investigate, “hover” over the URL to see the actual source domain and then check Wikipedia to see who that source might be. Find better sources — do they have the same information? Trace to original sources via citations or referenced individuals.
The key here is skepticism. There are legitimate differences of opinion and beliefs held in America. There are also ne’er-do-wells who will use these differences to increase the implicit tensions, aggravate each of us, and in some cases encourage riots and violence. Some have the destruction of our democracy, free press and other aspects of the American advantage as an objective. No doubt they celebrate every riot, killing, legislative battle whether that’s at the school, town, state or federal level.
Where they can, they will push every button to amplify our fear and outrage. These play directly into the algorithms that Facebook, and other services use to prioritize our news feeds, recommend groups to join, and dispirit our children.
As with any vicious cycle, when these messages reinforce our preconceptions, we are more likely to share them — independent of the validity of the information. When your newsfeed, online groups, virtual friends and perhaps even real friends echo the messages, they become part of your world view — independent of accuracy. Our domestic trolls, politicians, even news organizations, are often willing to re-tweet, re-post, and accelerate messages that resonate with their communities — often, unaware of the real source or agenda.
It is no wonder why our country, state and even towns are deeply divided with individuals likely to take to the streets. There are real reasons to assert our rights to public assembly, to petition our elected officials and our associated freedom of speech. But we must realize that there are forces pushing us towards the brink of violence. Every time we replace dialog and civil interaction with disrespect, disruption or destruction, there are teams in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Peking, Guangzhou, Teheran, and Pyongyang that are cheering us on, even when they can’t claim credit.
What can we do as citizens? Follow the SIFT steps, and apply some critical thinking skills. Before you share, consider what impact you are seeking, or worse, unintended agendas you might advance. When you decide to act — ask yourself how to do that in a way that will promote your message in a civil way that might engage others, rather than a confrontation that will likely solidify resistance to your message.
Jim Isaak is chair of the IEEE New Hampshire Section of IEEE and President Emeritus of the IEEE Computer Society. He lives in Bedford.