Confirmation bias is a helluva drug

A news article is out from the Washington Post discussing the disinformation campaign waged by the Russians during the 2016 election.  For me, it’s old and new news as this is something I recognized in 2016 when it was going on.  The new aspect is the depth and breadth of the whole campaign.  It seems there was no social media outlet that was not weaponized in some capacity.

It was easy for me to pick out some of the stories in 2016 because they were just plain stupid to begin with.  There were obvious stories that were too dumb to believe unless those stories were things that you already believed anyway.  Other stories were not as easy to spot as they were not outright obvious nor did they carry any particular overt partisan message.

That was the genius of the whole Russian attack.  They did nothing more than feed into biases that Americans already held close to their hearts.

The report traces the origins of Russian online influence operations to Russian domestic politics in 2009 and says that ambitions shifted to include U.S. politics as early as 2013 on Twitter. Of the tweets the company provided to the Senate, 57 percent are in Russian, 36 percent in English and smaller amounts in other languages.

The efforts to manipulate Americans grew sharply in 2014 and every year after, as teams of operatives spread their work across more platforms and accounts to target larger swaths of U.S. voters by geography, political interests, race, religion and other factors. The Russians started with accounts on Twitter, then added YouTube and Instagram before bringing Facebook into the mix, the report said.

Facebook was particularly effective at targeting conservatives and African Americans, the report found. More than 99 percent of all engagement — meaning likes, shares and other reactions — came from 20 Facebook pages controlled by the IRA, including “Being Patriotic,” “Heart of Texas,” “Blacktivist” and “Army of Jesus.”

Together, the 20 most popular pages generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.4 million reactions and 3.4 million comments. Company officials told Congress that the Russian campaign reached 126 million peopleon Facebook and 20 million more on Instagram.

The Russians operated 133 accounts on Instagram, a photo-sharing subsidiary of Facebook, that focused mainly on race, ethnicity or other forms of personal identity. The most successful Instagram posts targeted African American cultural issues and black pride and were not explicitly political.

People are more likely to follow and believe sources that they agree with as opposed to digging deeper to determine whether they are reading true factual information to begin with.  Some of these Russian accounts started off by posting actual stories before veering off into numpty land while some other sites mimicked existing news outlets and posted fake news.  We, as a country, basically got mind f**ked by an adversary because of our tendency to lazily accept things we agree with without verifying the authenticity of the information we’re agreeing with.

This has been going on for a while, and there were numerous topics the Russians screwed around with.  They went from stirring up things with Jade Helm all the way to jumping onto the Black Lives Matter bandwagon.  No group or demographic was left unscathed.  We know they were successful because we’re still dealing with the fallout over the whole campaign.

The reports referenced by WaPo state without a doubt that the intent was to help get Trump elected.  That can be seen in the manner of which they targeted specific groups.  I don’t do much with social media because of my job, so I’d like to think that I was somewhat inoculated from the things posted by Russians.  I know that I was not completely untouched by the stuff though as I remember several of the stories they pushed as well as some of the rallies they put together.

As long as we use confirmation bias as a crutch, we will always be very susceptible to being harmed by an attack like this.  We better defend ourselves when we seek out information or evidence contrary to what we believe to determine whether or not we are getting the entire story when we’re forming our beliefs.  Relying on half-truths or outright false information to inform ourselves is a recipe for disaster.  It’s not always a bad thing to be wrong just like it’s not always a good thing to be right.  It’s never a good thing to be ignorant though, and letting confirmation bias dictate what you believe is a good way to becoming ignorant.

A link to the report titled The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency can be found here.

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