Putin’s Playbook: Pull factions apart from center; exacerbate democratic crisis

While we wring our hands in the United States over whether or not such a strategy is even conceivable, the erstwhile President of Russia has been running this playbook out in the open in Ukraine and Eastern Europe for some time. With help from Propagandist-in-Chief Vladislav Surkov, Putin has leveraged the open secrets about the psychology of crowds we learned in the late 19th and early 20th century to stir up emotional antagonisms within the political spectrum — to predictable results.

It’s no accident that fascism is on the march in America. The conditions have been brewing for some time, predominantly since the Conservative movement began breaking away more militantly from democratic principles and towards authoritarian philosophy (elite rule by force: preferably invisible force via economic hegemony for the middle and upper classes, and violent force / the carceral state for The Undesirables) in the late 1970s and 1980s. All Putin had to do was make use of available prevailing conditions and tools — the rise of social media in the 2000s counterintuitively blew a gaping wide security hole in the American persuasion landscape that Cold War Soviet operatives of the 1960s would scarcely have believed.

Today, as in parts of Europe between the world wars, the U.S. has partisan gridlock within The Establishment sector of politics; this exacerbates the impatience with and contempt for the status quo (aka the Liberal world order) that in some sense naturally congeals at the far right and far left margins of the political spectrum as a simple consequence of the Normal Distribution (the Median Voter Theorem captures this tendency quite succinctly). Under such conditions, an influence campaign like the one Russia wielded against the United States during the 2016 election season was tasked merely with tilting the playing field a little further — a task that platforms like Facebook and Twitter were in some sense fundamentally engineered to accomplish, in exchange for ad revenue.

New World Order? Be careful what we wish for

“Both Italian and German fascists had done their best to make democracy work badly. But the deadlock of liberal constitutions was not something the fascists alone had brought about. ‘The collapse of the Liberal state,’ says Roberto Vivarelli, ‘occurred independently of fascism.’ At the time it was tempting to see the malfunction of democratic government after 1918 as a systemic crisis marking the historic terminus of liberalism. Since the revival of constitutional democracy since World War II, it has seemed more plausible to see it as a circumstantial crisis growing out of the strains of World War I, a sudden enlargement of democracy, and the Bolshevik Revolution. However we interpret the deadlock of democratic government, no fascist movement is likely to reach office without it.”

— Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism

100 years on, it feels like we’re back at the start.

A Field Guide to Identifying Bots on Twitter

While multiple¬†formal investigations against the Trump family and administration continue to unfold, and Drumpf supporters weirdly deny the probable cause for concern, Putin’s troll army continues to operate out in the open on Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other social media networks. The sheer¬†scale of this operation started to become clear to me in the months leading up to Election 2016, having both spent a lot of time on social media both professionally and personally for over a decade as well as a hefty amount of time on political investigation during this presidential cycle.

Whatever your thoughts on #RussiaGate may be, it should concern any citizen that an enormous group of bad actors is working together to¬†infiltrate American social media, with a specific intent to sway politics. Media literacy is one part of the answer, but we’re going to need new tools to help us identify accounts that are only¬†present in bad faith to political discourse: they are not who they claim to be, and their real goals are kept carefully¬†opaque.

Cold War 2.0

We should consider our nation embroiled in a large international game of psychological warfare, or PsyOps as it is referred to in intelligence circles. The goal is to sow disinformation as widely as possible, such that it becomes very difficult to discern what separates truth from propaganda. A secondary goal is to sow dissent among the citizenry, particularly to rile up the extremist factions within America’s two dominant political parties in an attempt to pull the political sphere apart from the center.¬†

We didn’t really need much help in that department as it is, with deep partisan fault lines having been open as gaping wounds on the American political landscape for some decades now — so the dramatically escalated troll army operation has acted as an intense catalyst for further igniting the power kegs being stored up between conservatives and progressives in this country.

Luckily there are some ways to help defray the opposition’s ability to distract and spread disinfo by identifying the signatures given off by suspicious accounts. I’ve developed a few ways to evaluate whether a given account may be a participant in paid propaganda, or at least is likely to be misrepresenting who they say they are, and what their agenda is.¬†
Sometimes it’s fun to get embroiled in a heated “tweetoff,” but I’ve noticed how easy it is to feel “triggered” by something someone says online and how the opposition is effectively “hacking” that tendency to drag well-meaning people into pointless back-and-forths designed not to defend a point of view, but simply to waste an activist’s time, demoralize them, and occupy the focus — a focus that could be better spent elsewhere on Real Politics with real citizens who in some way care about their country and their lives.

Twitter¬†Bot “Tells”

1) Hyper-patriotism

РConspicuously hyper-patriotic bio (and often, name)  РPosts predominantly anti-Democrat, anti-liberal/libtard, anti-Clinton, anti-Sanders, anti-antifa etc. memes:


2) Hyper-Christianity

РConspicuously hyper-Christian in bio and/or name: 


3) Abnormally high tweet volume

Seems to tweet &/or RT constantly without breaks — supporting¬†evidence of use of¬†a scheduler tool at minimum, and displaying obviously¬†automated responses from some accounts. The above¬†account, for example, started less than 2 years ago, has tweeted 15,000 more times than I have in over 10 years of frequent use (28K). Most normal people don’t schedule their tweets — but marketers and PR people do.


4) Posts only about politics and one other thing (usually a sport)

– Posts exclusively about politics and potentially one other primary “normie” topic, which is often a sport – May proclaim to be staunchly not “politically correct”:


5) Hates Twitter Lists

РStrange aversion to being added to Lists, or making Lists of their own:


6) Overuse of hashtags 

– Uses hashtags more than normal, non-marketing people usually do:


7) Pushes a one-dimensional message

РSeems ultimately too one-dimensional and predictable to reflect a real personality, and/or too vaguely similar to the formula:


8) Redundant tweets

– Most obviously of all, it retweets the same thing over and over again:


9) Rehashes a familiar set of memes

РTweets predominantly about a predictable set of memes:

Mismatched location and time zone is another “tell” — and although you can’t get the second piece of data from the public profile, it is available from the Twitter API. If you know Python and/or feel adventurous, I’m sharing an earlier version of the above tool on Github (and need to get around to pushing the latest version…) — and if you know of any other “tells” please share by commenting or tweeting at me. Next bits I want to work on include:

  • Examining follower & followed networks against a matchlist of usual suspect accounts
  • Looking at percentage of Cyrillic characters in use
  • Graphing tweet volume over time to identify “bot” and “cyborg” periods
  • Looking at “burst velocity” of opposition tweets as bot networks are engaged to boost messages
  • Digging deeper into the overlap between the far-right and far-left as similar memes are implanted and travel through both “sides” of the networks