In anthem wars, the big winner is Russian bots…and Vladimir Putin

What Russsian bots are talking about today. Click for latest numbers.

Each time America gets in a spitting match, there are many losers. There is one clear winner, however: Vladimir Putin.

Forget election meddling for a moment.  Putin’s propaganda machine is in overdrive right now, egging on Americans to keep fighting with each other. Just look at this dashboard which tracks social media posts made by accounts suspected of being controlled by the Russian government according to the Hamilton 68 Project. On Monday morning, four of the top four hashtags were “taketheknee,” “boycottnfl,” “takeaknee” and “nfl.” Only “Syria” also cracked the top 5, as if a token issue.

“Russian propagandists suddenly have a lot to say about the NFL. Weird,” noted Melissa Ryan last night.

That’s how you win a war in the information age.  As psychologist Eric Byrne would have said, this is how you play a game of “Let’s you and him fight.”  Throw a word bomb into the middle of a crowd, then walk away and watch the mayhem.

In a bar on a Friday, that’s how you get two drunks to start a fistfight.  In a long-term conflict against a superpower, that’s how you de-stabilize. That’s the long-running strategy of Valdimir Putin’s government, and it’s working. For decades, when authoritarian governments have wanted to discredit a political gathering, they would send in thugs to do some well-timed pushing and shoving.  It’s really, really easy to get a crowd to fight that way. Then you have your TV pictures to say, “Hey, these crazy people are lawbreakers. We had to crack down to protect your safety.” That’s how it’s done.

Now, it’s done online.

Hey, it’s tough living in a democracy. It’s really tough hearing points of view expressed in a way you don’t like. If you want to show the world that democracy is a failed system, what better way than show a nation tearing itself apart?  America’s enemies don’t have to take down our power grid to cripple our economy to a grind; starting a Twitter war is just about as effective.

It’s pretty easy to start a fight on talk radio.  Just take a side on an issue that you know will elicit strong feelings but has no right answer, like: “Ted Williams was way better than Joe DiMaggio?”  Or “LeBron James can’t hold a candle to Michael Jordon.” Sports fans are used to such arguments, which fund endless sponsored hours of talk radio when there’s noting else to talk about.

It’s much easier to do this in politics, where so many Americans seems to walk around like gas cans just looking for a match.  The stakes are much higher, however.

Arguing is fine, of course. Name calling is not.  We’ve gone far beyond that, however. Led by our name-caller-in-chief, America is right now undergoing a great exercise in outlandish judgments of the other. He hates the troops. She hates African Americans.  I’m unfriending everyone who says X or Y or Z… All over a Tweet. You can feel the spite, the hatred, dripping through the screen.

Anthem standing, it turns out, is a perfect digital smartbomb. As you well know, there are plenty more where that came from.

I’m not sure how I feel about this weekend’s protests. I’m conflicted. I can say more if you like, but I’m not sure you should care how I feel. Really. What difference does it make if I proclaim my unequivocal love for patriotism, or my unwavering support for athletes to respond as they wish when someone calls them SOBs?  What matters is how I live my life, and how you live yours, not rhetoric and symbolic gestures.

One thing I am sure about: Vladimir Putin and others who wish ill on our way of life love this.

“How silly democracy is,” they can say. “They call that freedom. Look at them.”

Let’s me suggest this to you. If what you are about to say – more important, how you say it — could just as easily be said by a bot controlled by the Russian government, you shouldn’t say it.  Otherwise, you might as well be a Russian bot.  Be a citizen of America. Take a moment to look at the Hamilton 68 Project and see what kind of social media bomb is being dropped today, then do something every patriotic American should be doing right now: Don’t aid or comfort the enemy.  Try instead to understand the other side.  Listen. Better yet, speak truth to your side.  That’s the only way out of this mess.  If we want to beat the bots, you can’t be a bot.

Because while America is busying trying to recover from this latest self-inflicted denial of service attack, real things are happening. Puerto Rico is desperate.  North Korea is ominous. Monopolies are thriving, unchecked, sucking real income out of middle American families.

We live in an age where distraction might be the most powerful force on Earth.  Right now, America is losing the distraction war, badly.  Don’t fall for it.

Want help spotting bots? Here’s a great list of traits to watch out for. They include: Twitter posters who never sleep; seeming coordination among accounts; random “filler” content between incendiary Tweets. And the most obvious: Troll-ish behavior.  Starting “bar” fights. See through it. Turn down the temperature.  See it for what it is. An argument with no winner, meant to destroy us.  Be better, America. Or we really will loose this Twitter war, and with it, our way of life.



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About Bob Sullivan 1399 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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