Fred LaSor: Using social media for propaganda

For more than a quarter century I worked in a U.S. government agency that was shuttered when I retired. Not because I retired, but it’s strange to have an agency disappear after an entire career. The real story, though, is my former agency’s mission was largely countering Soviet propaganda.

My employer was the U.S. Information Agency. Its motto was “telling America’s story to the world.” It was the propaganda arm of our foreign affairs establishment.

The Voice of America was part of USIA, broadcasting daily for hundreds of hours in dozens of languages. We also conducted educational and cultural exchange, transmitted official USG policy statements to our embassies, published magazines, and even produced motion pictures during the Vietnam War.

USIA was created in response to the Soviet Union’s Cold War propaganda. When the Soviet Union collapsed, several congressmen thought our mission was finished. They called for us to be shut down, and many of our functions were merged into the Department of State.

Much of the Soviet propaganda we tried to counter was designed to tarnish America’s image. For example they put out the story in the 1980s HIV/AIDS was a creation of the CIA (a story they released through an African news agency to cover their tracks). We replied with statements by medical doctors and AIDS researchers debunking that theory. The Soviets knew people around the globe tended to think of America as creative, freedom-loving, and rich in opportunity; Moscow’s constant theme was America was anti-democratic, racist, and uncreative. When Nobel prizes were announced every fall and Americans won an overwhelming number, Soviet propaganda was silent.

Even though the Soviet Union has disappeared, the Russian government continues many of their policies and programs, including their propaganda effort. For this reason, I’m sensitive to what they are trying to accomplish now through social media. Companies like Twitter and Facebook are a natural outlet for Russian propaganda. All it takes is a free account under a false name and you can publish all manner of horrible things about America and Americans, attempting to drive a wedge between various groups and the larger American population.

Now we are learning Russia used social media extensively during last year’s election, a story that coincides handily with efforts by leading Democrats to link Trump’s campaign to Russia. Democrat operatives have for a year put out the story Putin preferred Trump over Hillary. Hillary’s campaign manager John Podesta advanced the theory Putin wanted Trump to win, and a Special Prosecutor was eventually named to look into Russian interference in our election. Now the first indictments have been handed down, against someone who worked briefly on the Republican campaign, but for acts committed long before he was connected to Trump.

Earlier this week senior officials of Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before two congressional committees, admitting Russian surrogates bought space on social media before the election. In the Cipher Brief, cyber analyst Levi Maxey writes “Russian agents bought ... around 3,000 ads total, targeting specific demographic audiences.” Maxey also notes “Google has acknowledged that Russian trolls uploaded over a thousand videos to YouTube on 18 different channels.”

Given my experience countering Russian propaganda, none of this surprises me. What surprises me is senior officials of social media companies don’t recognize how they’re being used. They need to look more closely at who’s posting, especially in multiple accounts. They can’t weed out all trolls because by definition, trolls hide their identity. What they can do is recognize their companies are being used to damage America, then design algorithms to block them.

Fred LaSor observes American society from retirement in the Carson Valley.


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