Facebook: A safe harbor for right-wing Potemkin Villages

For much of 2015 and 2016, on the side of one of the most congested roads in Miami, Florida -- US Route 1 -- there was a man at the same corner of the northbound lane holding a large sign in the morning. If you were among the hundreds of thousands daily commuters headed towards downtown, you could not avoid seeing him and his sign.

Apart from sunglasses and the sign with big block letters, he would not seem out of place in mall or parking lot. For the first half of the year, the sign message was: "MAFIA = CORRUPT". I noticed, and my guess is a fair percentage of commuters did, too.

It was odd. Later in the spring, the sign changed to, "PUT HILLARY IN JAIL" and, then, "LOCK HER UP". Then, still later -- in October -- the sign said, "VOTE FOR TRUMP".

There is another place that is like US Route 1: the internet and Facebook.

The place I have in mind is a Facebook page called "Trump Friends". It is filled with moral and ethical concerns expressed in hateful ways.

Anyone can subscribe to this Facebook page or other pro-Trump pages that are nested like Russian dolls. They are similar; filled with pro-Trump memes, articles, and a kind of full-throated messaging that exults at the "cup of hot liberal tears" bemoaning the defeat of Hillary Clinton.

On each post, the views are measured as "millions" and "hundreds of thousands" -- a metric only provided by Facebook -- , and a comparatively tiny number of commenters who all tend to say the same thing or short, single sentences. Like the man at the side of US 1 in Miami.

I reached out to a dozen of the commenters, randomly clicking on links to their own pages as soon as they "posted" comments on Trump Friends. I sent email messages politely asking if they had just posted on "Trump Friends" FB page.

One was a woman who, according to her FB page, was struggling with advanced cancer. A fair number were Russians or from Eastern Europe, registered for FB outside the US. One was from Singapore. I only had one response.

He was a Buddhist vegan from Australia who supports aboriginal rights. He replied: "I am not fond of the war machine which has been on steroids during the rule of this (Obama) creature. As for Jews .... I do not hate Jews. On the other hand Zionists who are not Jews I cannot abide. Khazarians are those of whom I speak." Khazarians?

Perhaps my blind queries about sensitive political views caused the other recipients to ignore my message. But it is also possible, none of these people really exist.

The man standing at the side of US 1 with the "MAFIA = CORRUPT" sign conditions viewers toward a conclusion. He is like an automatic, bot crawler on pages like Trump Friends, inserting inflammatory comments, chumming in the waters of protected, free speech.

IT boiler room operations in Mumbai or Moscow could be inventing hundreds of thousands of Facebook users who comment on FB by automated selection in response to keywords or posts, and we would never know.

All aim to drive traffic to social media pages like Trump Friends; a virtual Trump - Potemkin Village whose appearance of order gives rise to the notion (to the media as well as to the public) of a great wave of support for an autocratic whose narcissistic behavior is so encompassing, it is possible he does not even know the monsters that created him.

I looked up the FB page of one Danielle Jaskula at the instant she posted her comment. Her FB page has the image of a young girl staring up adoringly at an American flag hung over a street storefront reminiscent of small town America. It is captioned: “This is the way it should be.”

Like many commenters on the Trump Friends FB page who I believe are invented fictions, Ms. Jaskula's own page is filled with patriotic themes: "this is the way it should be"; the same moral and ethical concern that does, in fact, animate real Trump supporters.

Other commenters webpages are similarly filled with Christian symbols, values, and a pervasive sense of tribal isolation; that the world is really divided between us versus them. But what if they are not real? Forget fake news: the Facebook phenomenon of Trump pages filled with invented commenters would be pure and simple propaganda.

I sent Ms. Jaskula an email moments after she posted, asking if she had indeed commented and if so, to please explain the ideas behind her post and whether, like some of the other "friends" of Donald Trump, whether she also lives outside the U.S. No response.

"If you have a voice, you have an impact." That's what President Obama said to 60 Minutes in the final interview of his administration last night. But what if the voices that are having an impact aren't real at all? What if they are conjured from the imagination of political entrepreneurs who are paid to fan the fires of a market-tested basket of attractors?

The FB page of one Trump Friend belongs to Tatonka Gilbert. It is not clear who Tatonka Gilbert is. His page identifies him as "Owner at Small business owner, Studied at The University of Arizona", and his page of photos is filled with hostile images of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and supportive images of Donald Trump and of Native American Indians. Hence, I suppose, Tatonka. Unless he is pure whimsy. I tried contacting Mr. Gilbert as soon as he posted a comment on Trump Friends. No response.

I don't doubt that on Facebook there are real Trump supporters and also real Trump opponents who freely use social media to communicate their political views. But there is another, fearful and dystopian world on Facebook: pages that are agents of propaganda, amplifying the right-wing megaphone by creating Potemkin-like villages on the web.

It is now up to investigative journalists to verify this theory: are Facebook's right wing political pages filled with devotees of Donald Trump or is this a sophisticated political campaign to shape opinion through identities crafted from a check list of conservative, right-wing values as established by political marketers: a virtual community created from thin air?

I believe Facebook pages like Trump Friends is no different from the man holding the sign at the edge of US 1: low-cost, high impact political marketing. Both channel real Trump supporters by chumming grievance, outrage and populist anger in a virtual ocean filled with hungry sharks. Bots or anonymous worker bees on Facebook have made a right-wing groundswell appear, to "normalize" nationalistic, jingoist, hateful, racist messages now animating enough Trump supporters to turn civility into chaos, turning Facebook into a black hole mixing misinformation, false identities, and right-wing political agendas.

Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook board of directors ought to know if their company platform -- now counting billions of users -- is being misused in this way. If they don't know, let this blog post serve that notice and a challenge to investigative journalists: prove me wrong.

(Twitter feed: @gimleteyemiami)

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