Monday, January 16, 2017

Shaping Public Opinion: on Facebook, Right Wing-Potemkin Villages Abound ... by Alan Farago

From the Facebook page, Trump Friends
For much of 2015 and 2016, on the side of one of the most congested roads in South Florida -- US Route 1 -- there was a man at the same corner of the northbound lane holding a large sign in the morning. If you were among the hundreds of thousands daily commuters headed towards downtown, you could not avoid seeing him and his sign.

The man was dressed casually and well enough. Apart from sunglasses and the sign with big block letters, he would not seem out of place in mall or parking lot. For the first half of the year, the sign message was this: "MAFIA = CORRUPT". I noticed, and my guess is a fair percentage of commuters did, too.

It was an odd message. Of course the Mafia is corrupt. But stalled in traffic or passing by, the sign made me question; what did it mean? The mafia itself is not corrupt. It is powerful. Those are two different phenomenon. Was the sign holder insane? How could he afford to be outdoors, every day?

Later in the spring, the sign changed to, "PUT HILLARY IN JAIL" and, then, "LOCK HER UP". That message was clear. No interpretation needed. Then, still later -- in October -- the sign said, "VOTE FOR TRUMP". Perhaps, that was the point: to get viewers to wonder about the nature of power and point to its single conclusion.

I have no proof the man on the side of the road was creative political advertisement. (if so and if he was paid, he would have violated election law, requiring identification of funding source). The man with the sign vanished after the election so I can't ask him, or, I would.

In the parking lot of Starbucks, just half a mile south of the location, there was a Jeep parked right at the edge of US 1 all day long: it also had signs, ever more ominous with a background of the Joker in Batman; an easily recognizable villain next to a caricature of Barack Obama.

Here was a strategy clearly aimed at penetrating the bubble that people are in, especially when they commute to work. "MAFIA = CORRUPT" was designed to first condition its audience with a moral and ethical concern, then to viscerally attach to Hillary Clinton one clear answer, vote for Trump. The sign on the Jeep also wanted to put Hillary in prison; a message highly effective among a certain segment of voters, including voters who just turned off and didn't vote in November 2016.

There is another place in the virtual world that is like US Route 1: a Facebook page called "Trump Friends". It is also filled with moral and ethical concerns although they express in hateful ways.

Anyone can subscribe to this Facebook page or other pro-Trump pages. They are similar; filled with pro-Trump memes, articles, and a kind of full-throated messaging that exults at the "cup of hot liberal tears" bemoaning the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

On each post on the FB page, there are "millions" and "hundreds of thousands" of views -- a metric that is verified only by Facebook -- , curiously, a comparatively tiny number of commenters who all tend to say the same thing or short, single sentences. Like the man at the side of US 1 in Miami.

I randomly reached out to a dozen of the commenters by clicking on links to their names as soon as they "posted" comments on Trump Friends.  I sent email messages to a small sampling size. I politely asked if they had just posted on "Trump Friends" FB page.

One was a woman who, from her FB page, was struggling with advanced cancer. A fair number were Russians or from Eastern Europe,  registered for FB outside the US. One was from Singapore. I asked about their interest in Donald Trump as soon as they posted their comment: I only had one response.

He was a Buddhist vegan from Australia who supports aboriginal rights. He replied: "I am not fond of the war machine which has been on steroids during the rule of this (Obama) creature. As for Jews .... I do not hate Jews. On the other hand Zionists who are not Jews I cannot abide. Khazarians are those of whom I speak." Khazarians?

The fact that only the Australian Pro-Trump vegetarian/ Buddhist replied is troubling. Perhaps my blind queries about sensitive political views caused the other recipients to ignore my message. But it is also possible, none of these people really exist.

For instance: I looked up the FB page of one Danielle Jaskula at the instant she posted her comment. Her FB page has this image:

"This is the way it should be" except that it is affirming the role of Facebook as a virtual black hole mixing misinformation, false identities, and right-wing political agendas

Like many commenters on the Trump Friends FB page who I believe are invented fictions, Ms. Jaskula's own page is filled with patriotic themes: "this is the way it should be"; the same moral and ethical concern that does, in fact, animate real Trump supporters.

Other commenters webpages are similarly filled with Christian symbols, values, and a pervasive sense of tribal isolation; that the world is really divided between us versus them. But what if they are not real? Forget fake news: the Facebook phenomenon of Trump pages filled with invented commenters would be pure and simple propaganda.

I sent Ms. Jaskula an email moments after she posted, asking if she had indeed commented and if so, to please explain the ideas behind her post and whether, like some of the other "friends" of Donald Trump, whether she also lives outside the U.S. No response.

"If you have a voice, you have an impact." That's what President Obama said to 60 Minutes in the final interview of his administration last night. But what if the voices that are having an impact aren't real at all? What if they are conjured from the imagination of political entrepreneurs who are paid to fan the fires of a market-tested basket of attractors?

The FB page of one Trump Friend belongs to Tatonka Gilbert. It is not clear who Tatonka Gilbert is. His page identifies him as "Owner at Small business owner, Studied at The University of Arizona", and his page of photos is filled with hostile images of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and supportive images of Donald Trump and of Native American Indians. Hence, I suppose, Tatonka. Unless he is pure whimsy. I tried contacting Mr. Gilbert as soon as he posted a comment on Trump Friends. No response.

I don't doubt that on Facebook there are real Trump supporters and also real Trump opponents who freely use social media to communicate their political views. My informal survey leads in another, fearful and dystopian direction: that Facebook pages are literal agents of propaganda, amplifying the right-wing megaphone by creating Potemkin-like villages on the web.

It is now up to investigative journalists to verify this theory: are Facebook's right wing political pages filled with devotees of Donald Trump or is this a sophisticated political campaign to shape opinion through identities crafted from a check list of conservative, right-wing values as established by political marketers: a virtual community created from thin air?

I believe Facebook pages like Trump Friends is no different from the man holding the sign at the edge of US 1: low-cost, high impact political marketing. Both channel real Trump supporters by chumming grievance, outrage and populist anger in a virtual ocean. Bots or anonymous worker bees on Facebook have made a right-wing groundswell appear, to "normalize" nationalistic, jingoist, hateful, racist messages now animating enough Trump supporters to turn civility into chaos.

The man standing at the side of US 1 with the "MAFIA = CORRUPT" sign conditions viewers toward a conclusion. He is like an automatic, bot crawler on pages like Trump Friends, inserting inflammatory comments, chumming in the waters of protected, free speech.

IT boiler room operations in Mumbai or Moscow could be inventing hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who comment on FB by automated selection, and we would never know.

All aim to drive traffic to social media pages like Trump Friends; a virtual Trump - Potemkin Village, connected to each other like nested like Russian dolls, that nonetheless gives rise to the notion (to the media as well as to the public) of a great wave of support for an autocratic whose narcissistic behavior is so encompassing, it is possible he does not even know the monsters that created him.

Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook board of directors ought to know if their company platform -- now counting billions of users -- has been hijacked and is being misused to drive a hostile, divisive and extraordinarily dangerous political agenda spanning the world. If they don't know, let this blog post serve that notice and a challenge to investigative journalists: prove me wrong.


Anonymous said...

The guy holding the mafia sign along US-1 has been doing it for a while, long before the 2016 election. I once stopped to ask him what it was all about. I can't remember his exact response, only that it was non-sensical and made me think that he might be off his antipsychotic medication. It doesn't surprise me that he later held a pro-Trump sign. I've also seen the Jeep at Starbucks many times, always parked in the same space along the roadside, its rear end with the anti-Obama anti-Hillary spare tire cover facing northbound traffic. I'm guessing that its owner must not do much more than sit around all day drinking coffee and posting on FB. Sad!

Geniusofdespair said...

I think your Facebook theory is correct. The Daily Stormer admits their preferred and most successful route is Twitter for their messaging, but I am sure that Facebook is loaded with propaganda from imaginary folks working from other avenues then white supremacy Daily Stormer). Reddit is a mess.

Geniusofdespair said...

Tatonka Gilbert has been on facebook since December 30 2016.