Here’s a simple question to gauge the prudence of your political beliefs: Could Russian trolls design a painfully amateur Facebook post that whips you into an ideological frenzy by affirming your views or attacking your opponents in the crudest, basest, most racist and asinine way possible?
For thousands of Donald Trump supporters, the answer is a resounding yes. On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee released a tiny fraction of the roughly 3,000 political ads put out by a single troll farm linked to the Russian government between 2015 and 2017. More than 11 million people saw at least one of them, according to the company. The ads fall into two categories: blunt affirmations of Trumpian bigotries and fake liberal posts meant to arouse conservative ire. These fake liberal posts often depict Hillary Clinton as untrustworthy and too friendly with disfavored minorities. What’s astonishing about these posts is how closely they mimic actual conservative propaganda on social media and how narrowly they target a specific slice of the American electorate. They demonstrate that, as early as 2015, the Russian government had not only identified the burgeoning Trump base; it had learned how to exploit its paranoias and prejudices with near-surgical precision.
Take, for instance, the troll farm’s fixation on Muslims. Islamophobia was, of course, a centerpiece of Trump’s presidential campaign, so it’s only natural that Russian Trump trolls would attempt to foster anti-Muslim hatred. But their approach is much more sophisticated than, say, Trump’s. (“I think Islam hates us.”) Russia realized that unequivocal Muslim bashing has limited appeal, even among fervent Trump supporters. It is one thing to harbor hostility toward all Muslims; it is another to publicly tout your blanket contempt for every last Muslim on Earth. Most pro-Trump Islamophobes prefer to frame their animus in the Fox News style: not disdain for Muslims themselves, but rather derision for Muslims’ alleged imposition of Islamic extremism upon the United States.
And so Russia drew from the greatest hits of mainstream Republican Islamophobia: burqas and Sharia law. “ ‘Religious’ face coverings are putting American people at huge risk!” One post screams. “We must not sacrifice national security to satisfy the demands of minorities. All face covering should be banned in every state across America!” It got 4,300 shares. An even bigger hit links burqas with Sharia law, insinuating (falsely) that burqa-clad Muslim immigrants are imposing Islamic rule upon America.
It got 235,000 shares.
But Russian ads did not only condemn America’s nonexistent Muslim takeover; they also demonized Clinton as a putative enabler of creeping Sharia. United Muslims of America, a fake group created by the troll farm, praised Clinton in posts that used a pseudo-Arabic font presumably meant to raise hackles. One features Clinton shaking hands with a woman in a headscarf and reads: “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims.” Another superimposes an American flag over a cluster of minarets.
Fear of invasion by some alien is a common theme among Russian ads—understandably, as it was also key to Trump’s appeal. One barely coherent yet widely shared post blames Clinton and then-President Barack Obama for a supposed influx of violent Hispanic “illegals” over the Southern border. It also praises “TX Border Patrol” (“Always Guided By God”) and features a photo that seems to depict Texas state troopers on horseback. (There is no official “Texas Border Patrol,” just federal Border Patrol operating in Texas.) Another post appeared to promote a vigilante Border Patrol militia, declaring: “Every man should stand for our borders! Join!”
And naturally, there’s the requisite attack on Black Lives Matter, which fulfills the classic saboteur, invader-from-within narrative. A post by Being Patriotic, a Russian troll group, erroneously blames the murder of a Boston police officer on BLM—furthering the myth, still prevalent today, that BLM drives anti-cop homicides:
Not every Russian ad was so well-calibrated. A fake group called LGBT United posted one bizarre ad for “a new coloring book calling [sic] ‘Buff Bernie: A coloring Book for Berniacs.’ ” The post seems to use the book—which is real—as part of a homophobic dog whistle, noting that readers may enjoy the “very attractive doodles” of Sanders “in muscle poses.” Translation: Look at the freaky soft-core political porn that gay people are into!
A slightly more successful post quotes Sanders bashing the Clinton Foundation, probably in an effort to drive Sanders supporters away from Clinton. (One in 10 voters who initially backed Sanders ended up voting for Trump, roughly in line with historical trends.)
But these posts lack the engagement of the fiery nativist ads—which, notably, are largely indistinguishable from much of the actual content put out by Trump supporters throughout the election. Assuming these posts are truly a representative sample, it’s fascinating to see how easily Russia hacked the standard pro-Trump ideology. Russian trolls did not direct their energy toward moderate or independent right-leaning voters, which makes sense: Calmer posts criticizing, say, Clinton’s fiscal policies would surely tank. Instead, the trolls zeroed in on ignorant bigots, cultivating the racist, homophobic, nativist fever of the alt-right while pushing alt-right-adjacent voters toward new extremes.
If you are Facebook friends with a #MAGA fan, the style of these posts will be familiar to you. They are as easy to make as they are to imitate, because there is so little at the core of Trumpism aside from prejudice and fear. Russian trolls certainly helped to poison the social media ecosystem throughout the election—yet they could only do so with such ease because it was already toxic. These ads aren’t just frightening because Russia commissioned them; they’re also dismaying for their viral stupidity. Facebook may be able to screen out Russian misinformation, but it can’t teach its users how to stop getting duped by blatant lies.