Latest Russia Conspiracy Theory: Facebook Pages Are Culture Hacks Meant to 'Harvest Rage'

Worry over Russia's "influence" on U.S. politics is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of free speech.



It has come to this: The latest reporting on Russia's attempts to "interfere" with the U.S. presidential election focuses on Facebook groups that posted content created by Americans.

This, The New York Times breathlessly reports, represented an effort to "Reshape U.S. Politics."

What are the Russians accused of this time?

"The Russian pages—with names like 'Being Patriotic,' 'Secured Borders' and 'Blacktivist'—cribbed complaints about federal agents from one conservative website, and a gauzy article about a veteran who became an entrepreneur from People magazine," the Times informs us. "They took descriptions and videos of police beatings from genuine YouTube and Facebook accounts and reposted them, sometimes lightly edited for maximum effect."

So in essence, they did what a lot of Facebook pages do: Repost content that fits the theme of the page.

The Times describes this as "harvesting American rage," but that seems grossly overstated. These pages—which the site has removed—were not unlike countless other politically oriented pages on Facebook. Since virtually anyone can start a Facebook page, and since the Russian pages reportedly suffered from broken English, it's hard to imagine them having any real influence rather than being merely another interchangeable part of the online echo chamber.

The wide range of ideological opinion represented by the Facebook pages (which included material that highlighted police brutality and discrimination against Muslims, in addition to standard right-wing fare) also undercuts the idea that Russian efforts (or these efforts, at least) were directed toward a particular outcome.

"This is cultural hacking," Jonathan Albright, research director of Columbia University's Tow Center for Digital Journalism, told the Times. "They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They're feeding outrage—and it's easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share."

Maybe that's the aim. But that's also their right. The right to free speech, perhaps contrary to popular belief, is not limited to U.S. citizens. Anyone can (or should be) able to participate in America's marketplace of ideas.

Are Russians trying to breed chaos by stoking certain segments of America's political debates? Guess what: Free speech means our debates are always chaotic. That makes them stronger. Suppressing speech because Russians may have amplified it, on the other hand, undermines our culture of free speech and has the potential to be a lot more harmful than any Facebook page could possibly be.