Masturbation, Blackmail and Presidential Elections

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Matt Bivens, a former editor of the Moscow Times, had an interesting piece on Medium about Moscow’s alleged influence on the 2016 election, written in the aftermath of Hillary Clinton’s comments about Tulsi Gabbard and Jill Stein being Russian assets. (H/t Matt Taibbi.) In the piece he reviewed some of the Facebook ads and websites that are supposed to have impacted the campaign, and beyond. “At times,” Bivens writes, the Russian effort “was supposedly about tricking us into electing Donald Trump president; at other times, it was supposedly because the Russians hate our freedoms.”

A Russian troll is said to have posted an ad for a coloring book cartoon — dubbed “Buff Bernie” — showing Bernie Sanders in bikini briefs. Bivens notes that the ad ran on a single day in March 2016, got 54 clicks and costs whoever posted it 111 rubles, or $1.60. Yet this was included as evidence of a Russian state plot in a House Intelligence Committee report.

Another claim Bivens discussed, which was cited by the Senate Intelligence Committee, is that the Russia-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) set up a fake hotline for those “struggling with the addiction to masturbation.” which the Senate said would have created “an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate” anyone who called in. The IRA advertised the hotline on a fake Christian Facebook page, though it’s not clear anyone called in (or was blackmailed).

More recently, it was reported in October 2018 that more than half of Twitter posts criticizing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” were politically motivated trolling or the result of non-human bot activity, according to an academic paper published by a US digital media expert.” The expert was Morten Bay, a research fellow at the University of Southern California, who concluded that these fake post were from bots, some of them Russian trolls. A study he wrote found “evidence of deliberate, organized political influence measures disguised as fan arguments. The likely objective of these measures is increasing media coverage of the fandom conflict, thereby adding to and further propagating a narrative of widespread discord and dysfunction in American society.”

That, Bevins writes, “is some deep chess.”

Last year, the New York Times wrote a story headlined, “Fake News’: Wide Reach but Little Impact,” which said “false stories were a small fraction of the participants’ overall news diet” and that it “paled in influence beside mainstream news coverage.” The reason it had little impact was that, as the study put it, about a quarter of the population visited a fake news site in the run up to the 2016 election but about 60 percent were conservatives who were strongly pro-Trump. In other words, their exposure to “fake news” reinforced their views but didn’t change then.

Bay, who has made a name for himself as an expert on Russian disinformation, disputed the study in a story at Slate. He cited Michael Suman, who works with him at USC’s “Annenberg School of Communication Center for the Digital Future, saying that even if exposure to fake news was “incidental,” a lot of voters got their information “secondhand, through opinion leaders who passed on to others what they got from the media.”

So here we are, a year out from the 2020 election, and Russia’s apparently unlimited role in U.S. elections continues to consume national debate. “Facebook: Russian trolls are back. And they’re here to meddle with 2020,” CNN reported a few days ago.

“The campaign mostly recycled existing memes and posts from real American news organizations and political groups,” the CNN story said. It quoted a Facebook analyst saying, “This wasn’t Russians targeting Americans with Russian content, this was Russians targeting Americans with American content.”

The Internet Research Agency is said to be behind this campaign, which included 50 accounts on Instagram and one on Facebook. The main objective of the activity appeared to be to undermine Joe Biden’s, according to the story, though Biden’s campaign would seem to be sinking with or without a push from Moscow.

There are so many grounds to attack Trump, from his vile policies on immigration, his tax cuts, his increasingly rabid base, sanctions on a number of official “enemies,” and his recent deployment of troops to Saudi Arabia. But the Russia line of attack is still the most popular with most Democrats, so if impeachment fails we can look forward to another four years of debate about Russia undermining our democracy. i

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