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The Briefing: How Russians trolls dupe good Americans

WASHINGTON – Gloria is a good person, a good Buffalonian. She's middle-aged and single, and she works every day at a job where she gets to help other people. To borrow Bill Clinton's phrase, she's the kind of person who works hard and plays by the rules.

She's also the sort of person who got duped into spreading Russian propaganda during the 2016 presidential election.

That's what I found out when I looked at some of the ads, released by House Intelligence Committee Democrats earlier this month, that Russian trolls bought on Facebook before and after that year's campaign.

As an experiment, I plugged the names of some of the fake groups in these ads – "Blacktivist," "Brown Power," "Secured Borders" and the like – into the search engine on my Facebook page. And I found that Gloria, a Facebook friend for the past couple of years who helped me on a story once, fell for the tripe the Russians were offering.

When I called to tell her, she sounded shocked.

"It's kind of scary," Gloria said.

Gloria is not her real name, which I agreed to keep private, because I saw no reason to embarrass her and because I wanted her to feel free in talking to me about what she did on Facebook nearly two years ago.

In June of 2016, Gloria posted to her page a meme.

"America will not be destroyed by Muslims, undocumented workers, Blacks, Mexicans or Latinos," the ad says, amid a picture of a burning New York City and sunken Statue of Liberty. "But rather uncontrolled hatred, unethical politicians, misinformation and racism."

The ad's sponsor: "Blacktivist," one of the Russian trolls' most active fake groups – one that even tried to commandeer the organizing of protest rallies in Buffalo. For some reason, the Russian trolls were obsessed with Black Lives Matter, and "Blacktivist" turned out to be cultural appropriation of the worst intent, designed to further split America along racial lines.

Gloria isn't black, but she is a liberal. She agrees with the sentiment of that ad, which is not exactly an uncommon sentiment on the left.

She also isn't fond of the person she sees as responsible for a lot of the uncontrolled hatred, unethical behavior, misinformation and racism she worries about, who just so happens to be the Republican candidate the Russians tried to help in their disinformation campaign: Donald Trump.

"I don't like Trump at all," she said. "I think he has no business running our country. He doesn't know what he's doing."

So when she saw that Blacktivist ad on Facebook two years ago, she did what she had done both before and since.

"If something strikes me, I share it," Gloria said.

But no longer. Now, having learned what she did without thinking two years ago, she said she will think long and hard and consider the source before sharing anything on Facebook.

"It will definitely change what I do," she said.

In other words, Gloria just learned a hard lesson that we all need to learn: Social media makes it easy for America's enemies to exploit our nation's divisions.

Gloria didn't get that troublesome meme directly from the Russian trolls behind Blacktivist. The trolls bought that ad, and then a Facebook group called "Too Informed to Vote Republican" reposted it.

"Too Informed to Vote Republican" had more than 308,000 Facebook followers as of Tuesday. That's not a huge number, but it is an indication that an American interest group unwittingly spread Russian propaganda to far more people than the little known "Blacktivist" outfit could reach on its own.

This wasn't the only time "Too Informed to Vote Republican" spread something from Blacktivist, either. On Oct. 6, 2016, "Too Informed" shared this image:

So who, exactly, is behind "Too Informed to Vote Republican"? It's hard to say.

The Facebook page, largely a collection of lefty political memes, tweets and articles, includes a link to a website called samuel-warde.com. Click on it, and you get the website for "Liberals Unite – the 24-hour News Magazine for Discerning Liberals." That website includes an email contact – whenwoods@gmail.com – but when I wrote to that address, I never got a reply.

There's a lesson in all of this for all of us. Please stop spreading these political memes. They do nothing but further divide a divided country. Plus you have no idea where they came from.

I know that when you see a clever meme online, it's so tempting to share it.

But think of it this way. Imagine that you're in downtown Buffalo in the heat of summer, running errands on a day when you're too busy for lunch. Then you see a Subway sandwich that someone left on a park bench. The writing on the wrapper says "tuna" – and you love tuna. So are you going to eat that sandwich? Or would you think to yourself: "Eww, I don't know where that sandwich came from, or if it's any good."

It's best to regard political memes with the latter level of scrutiny, which is just what Gloria plans to do from now on, given what she just learned.

"What the Russians are doing is an invasion of our privacy, and they can do it so simply," she said. "It's extremely frightening."

Happening today

President Trump attends a Republican campaign fundraising dinner in New York … Vice President Mike Pence delivers the keynote address at the 137th commencement exercises for the U.S. Coast Guard Academy … Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies at a House Foreign Affairs hearing on "Strengthening American Diplomacy: Reviewing the State Department's Budget, Operations, and Policy Priorities" … CNN airs a town hall discussion with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Good reads

The New York Times analyzes Team Trump's new strategy for countering special counsel Robert Mueller ... In the National Review, Victor Davis Hanson describes how Republican voters rationalize their support for Trump ... In The Washington Post, Yale historian Timothy Snyder says the internet is leading to a fascist revival ... The New Republic's David Dayen dismisses House Speaker Paul Ryan as a fraud ... And Vox notes that banks are enjoying record profits at a time when they're likely to enjoy the benefits of deregulation.

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