In recent weeks two of my friends have found themselves amid controversy and an enormous amount of time might have been saved by taking a few simple steps before pressing the “post” button. Let me say at the outset that this is not a “left” versus “right” issue. Anyone who has a political viewpoint and is willing to discuss their viewpoints on platforms like Facebook or Twitter is vulnerable to this problem.
First of all, understand what is going on here. People who are usually paid operatives for things like presidential campaigns or their allies are constantly scanning social media looking for people who can be tricked into becoming their spokesperson. They understand that the only people who tune into (for example) a Trump campaign site are people who are likely to vote for Trump. But if they can convince some of those people to echo their claims or “share” the Trump info they might be able to reach into places they normally cannot get to–your family and friends. This is the social media multiplier effect, and it is a very powerful tool.
Next, understand the methods these people and parties employ. They are almost always deceitful. One clever type of deceit they employ is to use something that happened, or video of an event, but present it ways that distort the original event.
They have very good intelligence on what sort of things will motivate you to share their propaganda. For example, thanks to the ability to sort data on social media platforms, they can tell if you are strongly pro-Israel and target you with memes showing how anti-Israel or even antisemitic various Democrat supporting folks are. An example of how deceitful that tactic can be is the recent congressional resolution condemning violence against synagogues. All four Democratic Party members who are the frequent targets of this type of malicious propaganda voted in favor of the resolution, but twenty-three Republicans voted against it. This proves two things. First, that regardless of Party, the overwhelming majority of Congress are willing to vote in favor of causes important to Jews, and second, that the distributors of pro-Trump propaganda will never present anything in perspective.
Another favorite tactic of the propagandists is to misrepresent what they are posting. For example, most reputable newspapers allow opinions on their editorial page which are contrary to the stated opinion of the publication’s editors. What they will do is provide a link to the opinion with a title suggesting that the newspaper itself is endorsing that opinion–they know that >90% of readers won’t bother to click the link and see the truth of it.
Another favorite tactic is the false equivalent. People hostile to Donald Trump often mention his notorious sexual offenses and escapades. That Trump has committed egregious acts is beyond question. But if you can convince people that his opponent has as well, you might be able to blunt the force of the criticisms of Trump. As I write this there is a YouTube posted about Joe Biden which calls him a pedophile in the title. A very serious allegation. But the accusation is based entirely on photographs of Biden over the decades hugging fully clothed people. Nothing even remotely as noxious as Trump eying his own daughter lasciviously. That’s a perfect example of the false equivalent. On the one hand a person who has admitted to serial adultery against all three of his wives, invaded the personal space of nude 15-year-old girls, and bragged about committing sexual assault. On the other, a man who is undoubtedly guilty of hugging people too much. Exactly the same thing, right? Wrong.
Which brings me to the subject of links. NEVER click a link unless you are absolutely certain it comes from a reliable source. Over and over again I have found links that purport to be something like “firstname.lastname@example.org” but when you hover over the link most email or browsers will show you the real source which might be “scams@f*ckyou.com”. I rarely censor my Facebook page, but one trigger for me is a correspondent who posts one or more links–I don’t want to risk my friends getting snagged in a scam, so I will delete those sorts of posts as soon as I see them.
Another extremely common tactic is deflection. If you can’t defend something your candidate is clearly guilty of, talk about how people on the “other side” have done equally awful things–whether or not those allegations are true. Even if they are blatant falsehoods, they figure they can exhaust their opposition with senseless side discussions. A recent example of this strategy is attempting to convince people that other politicians are more to blame for the pandemic than Trump. This has led to an avalanche of social media posts condemning Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York. This is hardly the place to examine Gov. Cuomo’s actions (I may do that elsewhere), but suffice it to say that Cuomo should not have had to do anything about the epidemic because Trump’s federal team had the responsibility to do that before it ever became the catastrophe that afflicted New York. But getting people to talk about Cuomo instead of Trump is the goal of the strategy.
Yet another strategy is sewing discord within the ranks. If the discussion is about how corrupt a given politician might be, throw out some allegations by others. For example, if you’re discussing the private trip that Trump made to a private island with the pedophile and sex trafficker Jefferey Epstein, try to steer the conversation by talking about how Bill Clinton and other Democrats also went to Epstein events.
What can you do to avoid the pitfalls of playing into the hands of propagandists? Actually, quite a bit. First, if a post or meme appeals to you, check it out before you share it. Does it come from a reliable source? Do you even recognize the real source? You are usually safe to link your posts to good faith actors like the NY Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Economist, the Guardian, Le Monde, etc. Large general circulation newspapers, news sites such as CNN and MSNBC. On Fox News it’s a mixed bag–a few of the general news hosts are safe, but some of their commentators are willing to venture into dangerous territory–I would suggest avoiding Fox for that reason and not because I disagree with their politics, which of course I do. But be fair: I never share memes I get from sites that often appeal to my progressive politics. For example, you won’t find a single post of mine shared from Act Blue or MoveOn.Org even though I largely agree with their points of view because they are very political and sometimes use the same sorts of tactics I criticize in other sites.
Finally, use a little common sense. How reasonable is it that people marching for social justice are going to be dragging innocent people out of their cars and abusing them? How likely is it that people committed to social justice are going to be slinging racist or antisemitic slurs? If you are presented with a statement or even a video which claims such things, you need to vet the source even more strongly. Chances are you are being pranked or worse–deceived into supporting a cause you might not support if you knew the truth.