In 1838, Abraham Lincoln said of the possible destruction of the United States, “If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Those words are still apt, even considering they came from a guy who’d never heard of Facebook and didn’t fear foreign interference in elections.
We are being manipulated, and skillfully so, but we are ripe for it. Our enemies are accused of sowing division, but in truth, they are trying to reap divisions we’ve already sown.
Facebook announced Tuesday it had identified and was stamping out a coordinated campaign to influence the politics of the United States via dozens of inauthentic, inflammatory social media accounts.
Separately, a Russian government agency was at the center of a federal indictment earlier this year on similar interference in the 2016 election, and evidence again points to Russia.
The acts Facebook exposed Tuesday were devilishly clever. The ploys centered on mobilizing the left, rather than the supporters of President Donald Trump whom Russia favors, in a way that discredited progressives and their cause.
In one case, the accounts promoted a counterprotest to disrupt a gathering that white supremacists are planning in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month to mark the anniversary of last year’s Unite the Right march that turned deadly.
The fake page was soon connecting with users on many real pages to plan this counterprotest, which easily could contribute to more carnage, and by this week, more than 2,000 Facebook users had indicated interest in attending.
Facebook also found fake pages promoting the #AbolishICE campaign that seeks to disband the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a push that has infuriated conservatives and alienated plenty of Democrats. The tactic is similar to Russia’s promotion of #antifa and Black Lives Matter in the past, which inflamed tensions around police shootings of unarmed black men and incensed white nationalists.
Just after typing that sentence, I flipped over to Facebook for a mental break, as I do 937 times a day. There, I was informed, with a roundup of past posts and pix and family history and old columns, that July 31 was the 10th anniversary of creating my Facebook account.
Social media took over our lives so quickly and expansively that neither the companies, the government nor we users were able to keep up.
Now Facebook and its peers are struggling to keep their content honest and legal. Governments have yet to define what ought to be allowed online. And many of us consumers are easily moved by what we consume online, because we are so ready to believe posts that confirm our sense of the world.
The enemies of the United States are many and clever. The interference is real and frightening. But it can work only if we take the bait, behave badly, and make fierce enemies of each other over issues we ought to debate passionately but civilly.
Facebook and its ilkmust get better about vetting content and users. The United States must crack down on internet companies that don’t. The Russians must understand that their manipulation is very nearly an act of war against a far more powerful foe.
And Facebookers and Instagrammers? We have to be as quick to fact-check a post we agree with as one we do not. And we need to default to courtesy and tolerance.
When it comes to what enemies of the United States can do to us, there is not much to be frightened of. But when it comes to what we can be persuaded to do to each other, there is our destruction to fear.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.