The latest “news” about Russia-gate is the contention that “Russian-linked” ad buyers purchased $100,000 worth of targeted Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential election. For the most part these ads didn’t urge support for any particular candidate, but, we’re told, they were “divisive,” “controversial,” and definitely Not Very Nice. So what did the ads say? Oh, that’s a secret that’s being closely guarded by all involved. Facebook is refusing to release the ads, and the congressional committee that’s investigating them – yes, our solons are on the case! – also refuses to say what the ads actually said: we’re just supposed to take their word for it that the ads were part of a Sinister Russian Conspiracy to Destroy Our Democracy.
So who were these mysterious Russians who were buying “divisive” Facebook ads that, we’re told, may have handed the election to Donald J. Trump for a measly $100,000 – and where’s the evidence they were Russians? Well, that’s also a secret. The many articles detailing this dark plot only tell us that the ads were “Russian-linked,” or, at best, “bought by Russians.” Which Russians? Do these people have names? Well, apparently not, but the name of an alleged organization does keep coming up: the “Internet Research Agency.”
We are told this Agency “has many names,” according to conspiracy theorist Adrian Chen. Writing in the New York Times, Chen claims that mysterious Russian oligarchs fund the elusive organization, which keeps moving its headquarters so as to remain undetected by the inquisitive Russian media. (Hey, I thought the Russian media was entirely under the control of Vladimir Putin!) Chen’s narrative is that the evil Russkies run gigantic “troll farms” that spend their time and energy pushing “fake news” – such as the story that there was a huge explosion at a chemical plant in Louisiana. Chen writes:
“Around 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 11 last year, Duval Arthur, director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, got a call from a resident who had just received a disturbing text message. ��‘Toxic fume hazard warning in this area until 1:30 PM,’ the message read. �‘Take Shelter. Check Local Media and columbiachemical.com.’”
It turned out to be a prank, dismissed as such by Mr. Arthur, but according to Chen it was all part of a Russian plot to do – what? It’s not at all clear. Chen claims that a whole panoply of internet phenomena – blog posts, YouTube videos, Twitter postings, etc. – were created in order to make it look like a real disaster was in the making in Louisiana. Chen describes two other hoaxes: one claiming that Ebola had broken out in Atlanta, and another that pushed a fake story about an unarmed African-American woman who had supposedly been shot by police (Chen doesn’t specify the alleged location.) “Who was behind all of this?” asks Chen:
“When I stumbled on it last fall, I had an idea. I was already investigating a shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the internet. It has gone by a few names, but I will refer to it by its best known: the Internet Research Agency.”
Does Chen show an actual connection to the Internet Research Agency? Not at all. He simply asserts it. Which is actually a pretty trollish thing to do….
One has to wonder: why would the Russian state be engaging in such nonsensical activities online? After all, as soon as the hoaxes were exposed, whoever was spreading them would lose credibility. So what, exactly, is the point? Chen doesn’t bother telling us: he merely moves on to describe his visit to Russia, where he stalked people going into the building where the Internet Research Agency was supposed to be located. Except, as it turned out, it wasn’t located there. Oh well, whatever dude …..
The “Russian troll farm” narrative has become a journalistic sub genre all by itself, with BuzzFeed (naturally!) taking the lead and documenting that these Putinite pests “made five bizarre YouTube videos attacking the U.S. government and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe.” Oh, the audacity! Can’t those commies leave Harry Potter alone?! Russian trolls also posted misspelled and ungrammatical comments on the web sites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and WorldNetDaily, a campaign which no doubt shook the very foundations of our republican form of government.
Both BuzzFeed and Chen focus on one alleged Russian troll in particular who goes by the name “I_Am_Ass” and whose avatar is a buttocks made up to look like a human face. Mr. Ass posted photos of President Obama with the caption “Obama’s fart – can you smell it?” Very effective!
This is the “troll army” the Russians are supposedly using to “flood” and “take over” the internet – as if puerile postings from “I_Am_Ass” are a credible threat to anything or anyone. The whole thing is a very bad joke – but before you start laughing, ask yourself: what is this really about?
With both Facebook and Twitter being hauled up before a congressional committee “investigating” this alleged Russian conspiracy – Facebook subsequently purged hundreds of accounts in response to political pressure, while Twitter did likewise – the motives of the witch-hunters are transparently obvious. What the “investigators” and their allies want is government censorship of the internet, which will be rationalized by accusations of “foreign influence” on the US political scene.
Of course, the internet is international: it does’t respect or recognize national boundaries. It’s everywhere, or practically everywhere. So any attempt to regulate content is going to run into problems immediately, which is why the US government is pressuring private companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to institute their own internet “filters,” with some success.
Ultimately, however, such efforts will fail, in part because people will abandon internet platforms that only allow “approved” content, and the narrowing of allowable content will eventually drive off all but the less engaged. In short, censorship is bad for business. Which means that, if the conspiracy theorists have their way, the government will have to step in and step on “foreign” content.
The Powers That Be have always hated the internet, and now they’re finally making some progress in their campaign to have it reined in. Using the “Russia threat” and Hillary Clinton’s loss to appeal to those who used to be called “liberals,” they’re teaming up with neoconservatives like Bill Kristol and foreign-funded (!) outfits like the Alliance to Secure Democracy to achieve their longtime dream of regulating internet content. And they have powerful allies in the Legacy Media, which has suffered huge losses due to competition from free internet media.
The Russia-gate hoax has many uses – providing cover for a politically bankrupt and intellectually dishonest Democratic party: restarting the cold war; promoting the “liberal”-neocon alliance. Yet paving the way for content controls – i.e. censorship – to be imposed on the internet has got to be the clearest and most present danger of them all.