As we should all know by now, Russian intelligence services have been attempting to manipulate opinion in Western democracies. The simplistic version of the story, as it applies to the US, is that, as Vladimir Putin publicly stated, the Kremlin wanted Donald Trump to win. But the more accurate version of the story — the bigger picture — is that it’s to Russia’s advantage to have the United States divided and distracted. (The same applies to Europe, which is why Russia supported the Brexit movement.)
Russian interference took many forms. It wasn’t just pro-Trump, and they actually played both sides, having pages devoted, for example, to promoting “Black Lives Matter” as well as “Blue Lives Matter,” pro-Trump groups and “resisters.” Certainly, getting Trump elected was one goal, but a wider aim was to cause distrust, and almost any cultural sphere was used: issues of race, immigration, law and order, and even health.
Nevertheless, I was surprised to discover that the Russians had set up a Facebook page called “Mindful Being.” According to AdAge:
In total, more than 290,000 accounts followed at least one of these Pages, the earliest of which was created in March 2017. The latest was created in May 2018. The most followed Facebook Pages were “Aztlan Warriors,” “Black Elevation,” “Mindful Being,” and “Resisters.” The remaining Pages had between zero and 10 followers, and the Instagram accounts had zero followers.
The Kremlin effectively weaponized mindfulness! (Not that that’s the first time that’s happened.)
The two images above are from a New York Times article on the posts these fake pages generated. The article is in the form of a short quiz, asking you to choose which of two paired posts was from a deceptive Facebook page. I’d recommend taking the quiz to test your discriminative abilities and to learn more about what Russia has been up to.
I’m pleased to say that I correctly identified all the fakes, but there’s an element of luck involved, since these fake Facebook pages were quite subtle. They couldn’t be too extreme because they had to seem genuine and to get lots of likes. So from what I can tell, most of the content on “Mindful Being” was completely innocuous. The page was only in existence for two months before being taken down, and was probably just laying the groundwork for more divisive content. Two examples of posts designed to sow mistrust are below:
You can see how it’s possible to draw people in by using innocuous “inspirational” content, and then to segue from that to posts that are designed to make people distrustful of the news media and of science.
There’s a bit of a connection here to one of my side-projects, which is my Fake Buddha Quote blog. For one thing, the same critical skills that are involved in determining whether a quote is recent or from India 2,500 years ago can help with questioning whether a Facebook meme is designed to manipulate you.
In fact I talk about the spiritual practice of verifying quotes (any by extension memes and news stories) in the conclusion to the book, which is called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Buddha.” I don’t want to sound too commercial, but the book is available for preorder (and it’s readable, interesting and funny).