In early September 2017, The New York Times reported: “Facebook officials disclosed that they had shut down several hundred accounts that they believe were created by a Russian company linked to the Kremlin and used to buy $100,000 in ads pushing divisive issues during and after the American election campaign.”
A day later, NPR reported: “Facebook acknowledged in a blog post on Wednesday that 470 accounts affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia purchased around 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017.”
Asked about these findings, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman, said that it was only “the tip of the iceberg.”
He has already been proven right. A few days later, according to The Daily Beast, “Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook’s event-management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S.”— largely anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rallies.
Interviewed on The Rachel Maddow Show, Mr. Warner said, “Facebook didn’t take this seriously in our election, but by the time the French elections came around in the spring, Facebook themselves had reported they took down 50,000 accounts. Well 50,000 in France, and 470 in America…to me it seems the Russian intervention in the American election was extensive, coordinated, and frankly unprecedented. There’s probably more to be discovered…”
My response to this news? A huge sigh of relief.
Allow me to explain.
I first signed up for Facebook about seven years ago. Back then, Facebook was like the cool club on the corner that I hadn’t heard about ’til later—the story of my life, right there.
Anyway, we newcomers settled into this new Facebook “club.” We made “friends” and “liked” things (although, back then, we became “fans”). The cool kids, including my daughters, walked away to eventually frequent even better clubs: Instagram and Snapchat. But despite their exodus, there are still a lot of people on Facebook.
The first post I created was about how I got caught in a downpour while walking my dogs. No one “liked” it. I experienced my very first hit of social media-induced insecurity.
But I kept going to the Facebook club. I decorated the walls, and took pictures of myself and my family to place around me. I invited my own friends into this space, and surrounded myself with my favorite newspapers, music groups, and authors. I could count on the regular patrons to serve up their daily dramas, and the bartenders to serve up second-hand news. I grew accustomed to an occasional bar brawl, or a couple’s public argument, but life in the Facebook club was generally congenial and supportive. It began to feel like the theme song to “Cheers,” the place where “everybody knows your name.”
To keep my experiences mostly positive, educational, and enjoyable, I’ve done my share of blocking/unfollowing. This doesn’t mean I only hang out with like-minded people, but, regardless of one’s viewpoint, I do expect civil discourse and dialogue. And, because discomfort is an important part of my life and my spiritual growth, I do venture out occasionally to watch the exhibitionists and misogynists over at Fox News. If I’m feeling particularly adventurous, I might even stroll through the gunfire at Breitbart or InfoWars—you know, for research purposes.
Fast forward to today. You can still find me on Facebook most days. My book club nerds, my favorite news reporters, and my yogic friends lead
a settled, routine lives inside the Facebook club. Some of my friends are idealistic, others less so, but we all pride ourselves on staying informed.
Nothing too out of the ordinary. Not perfect, but familiar.
All of a sudden, though, in late 2015, a crowd of rowdy strangers entered the Facebook club. They were angry, hateful, and loud.
Where did they come from?
Sure, there’d always been a random streaker-on-a-rampage, but we’d been able to ignore them in the past. But this new group could not be ignored. This group charged into the Facebook club and changed the energy from one of a congenial coffee shop to a frightening warzone.
They pushed far-right conspiracy theories and propaganda. They yelled and roared, mostly about Hillary Clinton—though they called her by other names. Dang, they hated her—and by extension, they hated anyone who supported her. When they tired of hating on her, they turned their wrath on Muslims, immigrants, minority communities, women, and refugees. They despised “libtards.”
Things these invaders also hated: feelings, emotions, sadness, kindness, empathy, compassion, calm dialogue, civility, apologizing, and anything else having the slightest association with the feminine.
To them, Hillary Clinton was not merely an opponent in a presidential race—someone whose arguments need to be countered, and promises challenged. She was Enemy Number One. She was an invalid, a liar, a murderer and—well, you probably saw them too.
I saw many posts like this one, from an account now deemed fake, via a Business Insider article:
This is the “real America?” I’d wonder. This is who we’ve become? People are choosing to go backward in every way that matters and calling it “making America great again?” People are shaming and threatening one another’s lives in the name of making America great? Who are these people, where did they come from, and what is wrong with them? Do they talk to their families like this? Their children? Or are they alone in life?
I was boggled. These ranters and ravers didn’t stay in their own corners. Usually fairly quiet rooms—say The New York Times room, or The Atlantic room—were drowned out by Hillary-haters and liberal-haters, spouting the kind of vitriol I didn’t even know existed en masse. These people used what we now know are dog-whistle words and phrases designed to fire up harbored fears, awaken the reptilian brain, and weaponize people: bans, treason, liberty, illegal aliens, terrorism, freedom, independence, high taxes, Sharia law, socialism, communism.
In the Facebook club, we couldn’t even hear ourselves above the unwelcome noise-makers. They infiltrated our conversations. They called people names and threatened their families—and sometimes, their lives. They didn’t care who they hurt. They didn’t care what they said. It was almost robotic, the way they went about their hateful agenda. That’s what I kept thinking, anyway—that their hate campaign was almost robotic.
As we moved toward Election Day, the volume of these interlopers only increased, and their rhetoric turned even more shocking. No corner of the club was safe from their Hillary-is-evil memes, their (fake) conspiracy theories, their not-so-subtle calls to arms. I didn’t believe in the existence of what some called the “shy Trump voter.” Nothing about these people was subtle. They were out-loud, out-front, and always online.
We, the usual patrons, the ones who believed we could sit down and work anything out over a cup of coffee, some good old-fashioned facts, and a working principle of empathy, got quieter and quieter. Arguments for Hillary—undoubtedly the most experienced and prepared politician to ever run for president—became few and far between. Few people (save Michael Moore) were talking about her strengths, and if her name was mentioned positively, I learned to hold my breath for the vitriolic stream of consciousness that was sure to follow.
Instead of talking about her agenda for health care or education, people only talked about—and shared—articles that spewed conspiracy theories (Pizzagate), and emails, emails, emails. The hatred of Hillary was so vile and visceral, I feared for her life on a number of occasions.
Slowly, those of us who were voting for Hillary stopped talking about it. Supporting Hillary Clinton became like a Scarlet Letter. No one dared say it too loudly.
I began to not enjoy the Facebook club.
I began to wonder about the nature of human beings.
More specifically, I began to wonder about the nature of American human beings.
Every day, I’d take a break and walk down to my local coffee shop. There, I’d interact with the patrons—in person. I’d watch, from behind my glasses, for the faces of those who might be behind the invasion. I never found them. People were their usual friendly, if a bit stressed, selves—in person. I had no reason to fear them. Would the real Americans please stand up? I would wonder. Which ones are you? The ones online? Or the ones I see in person?
Once the election was over and the impossible had happened, the energy in the Facebook club shifted yet again. Not right away, and not all at once, but slowly, the hatefulness diminished. A lot of the people who had been silenced before were, thank goodness, finding their voices again. Today, those of us in “the resistance” seem to easily outnumber the intruders, at least in the corners I’ve been willing to peer into.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in denial about the reality about what’s happening in this country. Those were real Americans in Charlottesville, waving Nazi and Confederate flags and chanting the old Nazi slogan, “Blood and Soil.” They didn’t carry torches and chant, “Jews will not replace us!” online. They did that in person.
But I don’t believe—or maybe can’t believe—that these people represent the real American. Rather, I think real Americans were more accurately represented in the event that took place in August in Boston—named a free speech rally, but in truth a white supremacist rally:
“Tens of thousands of counterprotesters crammed Boston Common and marched through city streets Saturday morning in efforts to drown out the planned “free speech” rally that many feared would be attended by white-supremacist groups.
By 1 p.m., the handful of rally attendees had left the Boston Common pavilion, concluding their event without planned speeches. A victorious cheer went up among the counterprotesters, as many began to leave. Hundreds of others danced in circles and sang, “Hey hey, ho ho. White supremacy has got to go.”
I’m still deeply worried about our country. Who knows if and how we might come out of this colossal mistake we’ve made? Blowing up every rule, norm, tradition, and expectation of what it means to be president and thinking this will catapult the United States into some kind of mythical greatness is the stuff of video games, not real life.
I worry everyday about journalists and free speech. I worry for the Dreamers. I worry for outspoken women like my daughters. I worry about our planet (or rather, I worry about us humans when the planet kicks us off.)
While some are already talking about how historians may view this anomaly through the lens of hindsight, I just hope that we have a planet to write those history books on in the first place. That it’s not first decimated by war or thrown into unretrievable chaos at the whim of a narcissist trying only to save himself.
So, forgive me for taking solace where I can get it. Many of the infiltrators of the Facebook club were not, in fact, real Americans. They weren’t even robots. They were just fake trolls, set loose by the Russians in an attempt to undermine our democracy.
And for that, I do feel just a bit relieved.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go order my usual drink—a New York Times Opinion article—at the bar.
Author: Keri Mangis
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Leah Sugerman