Is America Having a Foreign-Led “McCarthy Moment”?

What if foreigners are, today, the ones largely responsible for much of the division, death and destruction sweeping America and, in many cases, are doing it not for ideology but just to make a buck? 

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The stories of Covid deaths and disability are often tragic, and they’re happening by the millions in America.  These stories — and the grim spectacle of armed white people protesting at schools, election sites and hospitals — illustrate a dangerous new intersection of public health, politics, and social media.

Many, it turns out, are driven by an entire foreign-based industry called “troll farms” using social media to crank Americans into foaming-at-the-mouth crazy, including armed groups in our streets, just to make money.

A caller to my radio/TV show yesterday told the story of a Trumpy brother in a distant state who didn’t believe Covid was all that big a deal and that the vaccines were filled with dead baby parts or part of a massive deep-state experiment or something like that.  The brother predictably caught Covid, infected their mom, and she died.

Stories like that are playing out thousands of times a day all across America. Every one is a family’s tragedy. And they’re compounded by the harassment and threats against election officials, school board members and healthcare workers.

Where’s this all coming from?

This isn’t the first time hustlers have torn our country apart, pitting Americans against Americans. I was a child when Joe McCarthy claimed to hold in his hand a paper with the names of “hundreds of communists” directed by the Soviet Union who, he said, had infiltrated the State Department and the Army. 

McCarthy, advised by Trump’s lawyer Roy Cohn, had simply made up the story of foreign intervention to help his political career, as America later learned after thousands of lives were destroyed.

But what if foreigners are, today, the ones largely responsible for much of the division, death and destruction sweeping America and, in many cases, are doing it not for ideology but just to make a buck? 

Most of these social media pages point to external “news” or “science” sites that are advertiser-supported, making money for the people in the former Soviet states and elsewhere who own/run them. 

And the more extreme and inflammatory the sites are, the better they work: content like that is more likely to be shared by individuals as well as by social media algorithms that push inflammatory pages because they’re “sticky” or, in the parlance of the industry, “drive engagement,” pushing people deeper and deeper into extremist sites and beliefs.

It’s all a sort of symbiosis, as such content delivers more views and thus more advertisements, making both the trolls, the advertisers, and the social media companies more money.

Have we hit a “McCarthy moment” where rightwing American behavior is driven as much by foreign greed as a hatred of multiracial democracy?

An internal Facebook document from October, 2019 leaked to the MIT Technology Review and written about by Karen Hao, found that around 15,000 different foreign-troll-farm-run Facebook pages/groups/sites reached 140 million Americans every month. The foreign-run pages included:

  • “the largest Christian American page on Facebook, 20 times larger than the next largest—reaching 75 million US users monthly…

  • “the largest African-American page on Facebook, three times larger than the next largest—reaching 30 million US users monthly…

  • “the second-largest Native American page on Facebook, reaching 400,000 users monthly…

  • “the fifth-largest women’s page on Facebook, reaching 60 million US users monthly…”

When that 2019 report was written, of the top 20 “American Christian” sites on Facebook, 19 were foreign-troll-farm-runTen of the top 15 African American sites on Facebook, including the one that sits at #1, were similarly run by foreign troll farms.

The Facebook internal analysis, written by former senior-level data analyst Jeff Allen, didn’t dive into possible political motivations, although the Mueller Report made clear that similar non-US activity on Facebook and other social media exploded prior to the 2016 election, reaching tens of millions of Americans and helping make Donald Trump president

And now much of this foreign troll activity — today often done to make money rather than because they hold any genuine political philosophy or position — is tearing our nation apart in ways we haven’t seen since the Civil War. 

People protesting at hospitals, assaulting election officials, and showing up in force to intimidate local school boards all anecdotally appear to share a strong level of social media engagement with people who refuse to get vaccinated.

Which raises the question: “How much of this is being driven from overseas?”

The fact is that, outside of Facebook and other social media giants (and they’re not saying), nobody knows. But the signs are troubling.

Last summer on a warm Sunday night in the small Oregon town of Klamath Falls about 200 locals showed up downtown with guns, baseball bats, and whatever other weapons they could find around the house to fight off the busloads of Black Antifa marauders who they believed Jewish billionaire George Soros had paid to put on a bus in Portland and was sending their way.

Of course, George Soros had done no such thing and there were no busloads of Black people. But the warnings were all over the Klamath Falls Facebook group, and, it turns out, similar Facebook groups for small towns all over America.

Literally, from coast to coast, that weekend white residents of small towns showed up in their downtown areas with guns, rifles, hammers, and axes prepared to do battle with busloads of Black people being sent into their small white towns by George Soros.

Nobody's sure whether these messages, which activated frightened white people across the nation, came from local white supremacist groups trying to gauge if they could actually kick off a second American Civil War, or whether they came from some foreign government trying to tear America apart.

But they worked.

In the tiny town of Falls, Washington, frightened white people brought out chainsaws and cut down trees to block the road leading to their town.

In South Bend, Indiana police were overwhelmed by 911 calls from frightened white people wanting to know when the “Antifa buses” were arriving.

And in rural Luzern County, Pennsylvania, the local neighborhood social media group warned people that busloads of Black people were “organizing to riot and loot.”

Similar stories played out that week from Danville, California to Jacksonville, Florida, as documented by NBC News

Of course, it was all a fiction just like the widespread fantasies about the Covid vaccines (from efficacy to danger to “baby parts”) are fiction. But this nationwide campaign in hundreds of social media groups turned thousands of angry and well-armed white Americans out into the streets with extraordinarily similar stories and in a precise timeline all across the country. 

A year later, they’re putting angry mobs in front of the homes of state election officials and school board members or attacking healthcare workers.

Is this all a perfect storm of foreign hustlers trying to make a buck finding common cause with anti-democracy activists and anti-vax paranoids, fueled by social media algorithms designed to maximize engagement and ad delivery? 

Are foreign governments or overseas oligarchs — who want to see America in turmoil for a variety of reasons that benefit them and hurt us — still driving this sort of thing?

And if Facebook and dozens of other social media sites can successfully keep child porn and snuff pictures off their platforms, what is it about the troll farms that renders them helpless? Is it just the revenue they produce for the platforms?

Americans deserve to know who’s driving armed people into our schools and streets while exacerbating our Covid crisis, and why. And we deserve to know what we can do about it.

Congress needs to act.