Kate Starbird on Election Interference

Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington, has uncovered a strategic plot to undermine United States democracy. Starbird’s research is centered around the use of disinformation to promote the political agendas of non-democratic countries, in this case Russia. Through the use of twitter and fake media, US democracy is under attack.

In her article, The Surprising Nuance Behind the Russian Troll Strategy, Starbird discovered how Russia was able to use fake Twitter accounts to manipulate and undermine US democracy. Throughout this article, Starbird describes how Russia targeted social media platforms in order to advance their own political agendas. They do this through purposely framing how people interpret and see information, in order to drown out opposing views. Starbird summarizes her findings through the observation that Russia used these platforms in order to encourage further political division in the United States. These tactics allow Russia to control American politics through the most active citizens.

In another paper, Information Wars: A Window into the Alternative Media Ecosystem,  Starbird explains her research on political propaganda. As she was conducting research on the alternate messages surrounding mass shooting events, Starbird and her team uncovered how foreign countries like Russia were able to spread “fake news”, disinformation, and conspiracy theories in order to manipulate their own political agendas. Her research can be seen in her published  paper, Examining the Alternative Media Ecosystem through the Production of Alternative Narratives of Mass Shooting Events on Twitter. These tactics were seen to be clearly “in support of support of the rise of nationalist ideologies in the U.S. and elsewhere”, as stated by Starbird. By spreading misinformation, Russia can undermine American democracy. 

Starbird’s research centered around the use of alternate media sites to spread false information. These websites are filled with rumors and conspiracies that are used to change how Americans think and thus shape their political views. These websites are advertised through the use of social media and more specifically the criticism of mainstream media. Starbird states that the criticism of mainstream media creates a political agenda fully aligned with nationalism. Due to the mistrust in information created by these alternative media sites, political discourse can then easily be controlled. These tactics are used as an attack on United States democracy, by further compelling the political split in the country.

Examples of Direct Russian Interference

As an example of this, Kate Starbird conducted research that directly showed a clear Russian strategy using fake news and alternate media, in order to advance their political interests. Starbird describes how a humanitarian organization, The White Helmets, work in Syria to provide assistance to the suffering citizens in Syria and to show the atrocities of the Syrian government. However, this organization directly affects Russia, due to it being allied with the Syrian government. Due to this, Russia has created fake news and bot twitter accounts in order to create distrust towards The White Helmet organization. Starbird states how these rumors range from accusing them of using propaganda, staging events, and even calling them terrorists.

In another paper, Starbird describes how her studies around the #BlackLivesMatter movement uncovered a pattern of troll interaction as well. Written in the article, Examining Trolls and Polarization with a Retweet Network, Starbird shows how Russian interference does not simply stick to strictly political movements that directly affect Russia. Russian trolls target any political movement that will create enough divide in the United States to indirectly advance their political means. In this case, Russia used bots and trolls to spread disinformation about the #BlackLivesMatter movement, in which Russia strategically spread the divide between the left and right wings of United States politics. Starbird notes that her team only looked at the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a movement where Starbird did not expect any Russian interference, so there is no telling what other political movements Russia has also been targeting. 

 An important caveat that Starbird makes is the distinction between disinformation and false information. In her article, Disinformation’s Spread: bots, trolls and all of us, Starbird describes how these bots use factual information, like pictures or real information, and then change the context of that information. The change in context causes the information to become disinformation, as it is not simply false. This subtle change is what causes disinformation to become so easily trusted and spread so rapidly. Another important factor to take away from the spread of disinformation is that bots and trolls aren’t the only ones spreading disinformation. Due to the believability of the change of context, the disinformation is spread through the accounts of those who are active in the political sphere. While bots and trolls originally spread the information, the people they are targeting end up spreading the information even more.

Conclusion

Throughout her research Kate Starbird continually comes to the same conclusion, social media is a powerful political tool. Starbird shows how alternate media sites are able to drown out and attack mainstream media sites. Due to this, misinformation can rapidly be spread and used to promote the political agendas of the promoters, namely Russia. Starbird convincingly points out how political messaging that is funded by other countries, can shape American democracy. This undermines the politics of the United States, and allows those countries to control our political discourse. It is important for American citizens to understand Starbird’s research, so that our country can control its own future.

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