Russian bots trying to sow divisiveness in US

What happens when someone calls you an idiot?

You become angry. You react suspiciously to anything he might say. You lump others with the same opinions or even presenting the same facts with your original enemy — because that’s what he’s become. He’s no longer just someone with whom you disagree. He and others like him are evil.

What if “he” isn’t a human being, but a computer-generated comment or reaction to something you posted on social media?

They’re called bots, and the Russians use them extensively to sow divisiveness among Americans.

Former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden used his appearance at the Wheeling Area Chamber of Commerce dinner Thursday night to discuss various threats facing Americans.

Russia tops them, Hayden pointed out. Vladimir Putin’s Russia cannot compete with the United States militarily or, more importantly, economically, Hayden noted. Proving the point, he explained that Russia’s gross domestic product in 2015 was about $1.3 trillion.

California’s was $2.5 trillion. Putin doesn’t have the strength for a contest of power.

Hayden compared Russia and the world community to a family at the dinner table. Putin’s chair is substantially shorter than those of others at the table.

He can’t make the chair taller. Instead, every night after other family members have gone to bed, Putin sneaks out into the dining room and saws a few inches off the other’s chairs.

That’s what he’s doing to Americans. He’s pitting us against each other (not that we need any help).

Russian computer bots are used to take all sides of any argument we Americans might have via social media.

How intensive is Moscow’s campaign? One monitoring organization (Google Hamilton 68) monitors activity through 600 Twitter accounts linked to Russian influence operations.

Wednesday, 19,122 tweets went out through those accounts. That wasn’t an atypical day.

That’s nearly 20,000 times a day that many Americans see tweets we assume are coming from other people — and many of them, by design, make us angry.

And the Russians don’t restrict their sociological warfare to Twitter. As I’ve written, they were major supporters, sometimes organizers, of the campaign in this country against hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells.

“The Russians are playing both sides,” Hayden noted of positions Moscow takes on social media, “just to mess with our heads.”

Militarily, Putin can’t compete with the United States — unless we back down. Hayden compared the Russian leader to a poker player: “He’s got no better than a pair of 7s. But a pair of 7s wins if nobody calls.”

And if we Americans are busy going for each other’s throats, we’re less likely to agree to call Putin’s bluff.

One has to wonder why, if Putin is so successful in using social media to divide us, we can’t do the same thing to Russians.

Could it be that we Americans are much more cyber-gullible? Have we become a nation of, in V.I. Lenin’s words, “useful idiots”?

If so, we need to wise up. Putin may be cutting off the legs on our chairs — but we’ve handed him the saw.

Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and Wheeling News Register.

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