Ifs, Ands, and Bots 

Remember all that racial tension and the resultant marches and protests and outrage at the University of Missouri a couple years back? There were reports of a swastika painted on a door and of black students being racially harassed. Students went on the march. Protests spread on campus. Social media was filled with stories about local cops marching with the Ku Klux Klan. A photo of a bleeding young black man was circulated with the claim that local police had beaten him. The football team went on strike. The university president resigned. I wrote a column at the time wondering what on earth was going on at my alma mater.

Well, according to a report released late last week in Strategic Studies Quarterly, many of the more outrageous claims on social media during the unrest in 2015 were being initiated and reposted by — wait for it — Russian bots. The Russian troll farmers ran a bot operation, perhaps as a test, to heighten tensions and escalate unrest at Mizzou. The cops didn't march with the Klan. The photo of the young man was a fake.

The report, written by Lieutenant Colonel Jarred Prier of the United States Air Force, documents how the false social media posts contributed to the fear and anxiety on campus. Prier wrote about how the bots avoided detection in part by using an existing hashtag, #PrayforMizzou, to spread fake news and disinformation which were then reposted by students and others in the community.

According to another article about the Russian bots at Mizzou in Inside Higher Ed, university officials repeatedly appealed for calm and stressed that they could not confirm some of the reports coming in, but this "took place at a time when many black leaders on campus and in the state were not feeling trust in the university." Huh, wonder why.

Score another one for the Russian "hoax."

Folks, we have got to get a handle on this Russian situation. We are at war. There were no bombs or missiles or tanks, but we have been invaded — and we're being invaded as I type this. The heads of the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA all testified to Congress this month on the extent of the Russian hacking in this country — and warned that it was going to continue.

And just last week, Special Counsel Robert Mueller issued indictments to 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for their involvement in the 2016 presidential election. The indictments detailed a troll farm hacking operation that was spending millions of dollars a month, with hundreds of employees, many using fake U.S. IDs. The Russians even set up demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, working with unwitting campaign workers to create chaos and dissension and spread false information.

And what was the response to this threat to our democracy and national sovereignty from President Donald Trump, the man charged with the responsibility to protect and defend the country? Several tweets assuring us that he was innocent of collusion with the Russians. And another tweet disparaging the FBI for spending time on the Russian investigation instead of monitoring the Florida school shooter.

Essentially, when it comes to fighting the Russian threat, we are leaderless. No one is in charge. Trump has not issued a single response that shows he is taking the Russian invasion as anything but a personal affront. He's taking it about as seriously as he does allegations from porn stars and Playboy bunnies. Which is to say, he's ignoring it.

He has support, of course — from the NRA (also being investigated by the FBI for possibly funneling Russian money into the 2016 campaign) — and from his friends at Fox News and various right-wing websites. And he has tacit support from Republican Congressional and Senate leaders, who are complicit by their continued inaction and silence.

So, here are the teams: On one side, you have Trump and his enablers, Fox News, the NRA, and Vladimir Putin and his spy network. On the other side, you have Mueller, the FBI, the NSA, the CIA, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Which side do you think is more likely to have our national interest at heart?

If you're a fan of that first team up there, look at your roster and ask yourself why all these guys are playing together. If you're rooting for the other team, well, stay woke. The game of our lives is afoot.

Bruce VanWyngarden

brucev@memphisflyer.com


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