Marc Kaufman was not surprised that 70% or more of Republican voters thought the US elections were fraudulent. Nor was he surprised when public health recommendations for coping with COVID-19 were met with negative reactions ranging from skepticism to outright hostility. Marc knew because he, a fictitious self-employed educator from Israel’s northern city of Karmiel, had been wandering the corridors of Facebook for more than five years, engaging people (and bots, apparently) from all walks of life and all political perspectives, from the mainstream to the peripheries of the virtual world, in order to meet, discuss, and argue.
An introduction: This Marc Kaufman is not real. He was born out of my desire to burst my bubble of FB friends and family, who, with only a very few exceptions, are in the same general political-social-economic sphere as my own: Progressive/Left in politics, secular or tolerantly religious, socially liberal, and internationalist. My bubble, like those of many others, is a warm and comfortable echo chamber of mutually-reinforcing ideas and political perspectives. It is also constricting and misleading. That is why I am shocked at the results of every successive American or Israeli election, because the results never match the profile of my FB community. I needed to see what the “real world” was like and hear alternative opinions. I wanted to understand how people formulate perspectives that contradict my own. Thus, Marc Kaufman was born.
Marc was my age, lived close to where I live, and came from Boston, a place where I had some familiarity after having lived in Providence, RI. Marc’s politics were identical to my own. But whereas I do not friend anyone on FB who I haven’t met at least once in person, Marc scoured the virtual landscape and befriended a couple thousand unfamiliar FB identities. He joined communities of individuals who befriend anyone that extends them an invitation, many of whom max out on FB’s 5,000-friend limit. That was my and Marc’s first lesson about how much of the social network really works – large, anonymous social groups with thousands of identities befriending one another and knowing one another only through their posts.
Marc befriended Kurdish rebels and Coptic activists, West Bank settlers and BDS proponents, 9-11 truthers (who insist that the Twin Towers were destroyed by a cabal of Israeli/Jewish interests) and anti-vaxxers (who insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines cause autism). He befriended Messianic Jews and Fundamentalist Christians. Unbeknownst to Marc, he also befriended hundreds of fake identities just like his. But while Marc was there to learn and he never lied about his intentions (I posted multiple times that Marc was a fake identify and if anyone reached out to Marc personally, Marc would quickly write them to emphasize that he doesn’t really exist), many of these identities existed to promote particular political messages, and some were part of disinformation campaigns to seed chaos, lies, suspicion, and anger. By engaging some of these identities in debate and observing how the tone of much FB chatter was shaped by these hyper-politicized identities, Marc and I began to understand how large a threat these social networks are for democracy and civil society.
Vermin, Zio-Nazi, traitor, Kapo, Libtard
Although Marc started out as inquisitive and naïve, under cover of FB anonymity he became more and more forthright and uncompromising in his statements. He got into long tit-for-tat, shallow political debates about Israel/Palestine, internal Israeli politics, the US presidential race, Black Lives Matter and White Militias, climate change and more. Sometimes the conversations were civil, but often they were rude and intolerant, devolving quickly into sloganeering and name-calling. Marc stepped too far into the muck, often becoming uncharacteristically obnoxious. This was partially in response to the treatment he received from others and partially because obnoxious seems to garner far more attention in the FB universe.
Depending on the debate, he was hounded as vermin, a Zio-Nazi, a traitor, a Kapo, or a Libtard. He was the “drinker of the Kool-Aid” and was “brainwashed by the mass media, big-tech, and the Democrats.” Here was our second lesson about social networks: under the cover of anonymity and physical distance, people forego social niceties, etiquette, and formalities and abandon empathy and tolerance, as social media unleashes our inner anger and impatience. Although he unfriended the most offensive of these individuals (particularly in the run-up to the 2020 US elections), Marc was slowly becoming like the worst of the FB identities (this type of behavior is, apparently, amplified by FB algorithms determining what you see in your feed). So he began to surround himself with “friends” that resembled my real identity just to lower the heat.
By investigating the type of information people offered to support whatever argument they were advancing, Marc and I learned our third lesson: Much of the information offered up on the internet are conspiracies, lies and targeted propaganda. The primary information in this universe comes in the shape of a short slogan housed in a colorful box. Sometimes the slogan was attached to an illustration of an iconic character – some famous star slapping her forehead or a cartoon cat vomiting – forming a meme to mock your opponent. For “deeper” information, there were plenty of links to YouTube videos and faux news sites.
Altogether, this FB universe consists of a tidal wave of nonsense posted and reposted until fact and fiction are utterly indistinguishable, washing away any hope of common ground or common reference to fact. Virtually any political opinion or accusation, no matter how ludicrous, can find official-looking support on some corner of the web. But here’s where lesson number three gets really complicated: Those individuals depending on this world of fake information are entirely convinced that it is not them, but Marc and all who agree with him who are living in an illusionary world of made-up facts perpetuated by the “liberal media”. There is little, if any, common ground.
What happens when you mix large communities of politically charged people, lots of fake agitator identities, the total loss of social norms for civil discourse, and unlimited access to fake information? The answer, and the fourth lesson, is chaos. This is the exact type of chaos harnessed and encouraged by both Russian “influence operations” and by outgoing President Donald Trump with his continuing accusations of widespread and conspiratorial election fraud, regardless of all the proof to the contrary.
In the FB universe, there are millions of individuals being flooded with slogans, memes and links to nonsense information sites that are currently feeding Republican discontent with election results by offering up an alternative historiography of the 2020 elections – a phenomenon catalyzed and kept alive by thousands of fake and anonymous identities, combining with real ones, feeding the illusion. A similar trend is afoot with the discourse around COVID-19 policy response. Frustration from lockdowns, mask-wearing, political opportunism and growing economic disparities feed public desire to find alternative, often conspiratorial, readings of current events. The result, in both cases, is increasing distrust in politicians, political processes, science, media, academia, and law enforcement and increasing impatience with alternative voices and civil discourse in general. Similar campaigns target left and right, Jew and Muslim, black and white.
The basics of cautious use of social media
While these four lessons are incredibly dispiriting (Marc would often log off exhausted and despondent), the fifth lesson is cathartic: There is massive organization around fighting these destructive trends and rebuilding faith in society, science, democracy, and in one-another. This world includes exposés that explain exactly what Marc has learned. It includes educating to identify fake information and to strengthen our capacity for critical thinking, social media gatekeepers who are waking up to the destabilizing impact on society (long way to go to work out their own problems), and a generation increasingly turned off by the toxic brew served up by FB abusers.
More people are learning the basics of cautious use of social media, which are (1) to investigate sources, (2) establish the intent of a post, (3) validate information, and (4) expose misinformation and disinformation. The online “Crash Course” in navigating digital information is particularly recommended for individuals and educators. Many websites specialize in defining the biases and trustworthiness of news sources (see, for example, Media Bias/Fact Check), or exposing misinformation (Snopes is considered reliable for dispelling misinformation, or Factcheck.org of the Annenberg Public Policy Center).
In this spirit, I urge the Times of Israel and other online media sources to rethink the concept of open talkbacks – as they become hubs of the same visceral anger and disinformation as their FB origins. Requiring identification confirmation or moving to a longer form “letters to the editor” format might lower the flame of toxic discourse and require greater reliance on facts, without sacrificing democratic and transparent exchange of ideas.
Social resilience – the capacity of a society to withstand and absorb shocks like pandemics, heat waves, and hurricanes with minimal suffering – depends on social cohesion, trust in institutions, scientific literacy, and political and economic transparency. Disinformation running rampant on Facebook and other social media platforms, especially that which is promoted by political leaders in the US, Israel, Russia and elsewhere, weaken the democratic institutions created to assure resilience – as we are witnessing now in the US. Although Marc Kaufman from Karmiel is now deactivated, the lessons learned from his brief virtual existence resonate and can make us stronger in the face of very dangerous techno-social trends. If we emerge stronger in the face of these threats, then Marc’s foray into the dark side of social networks was worthwhile. If not, then remember the [sarcastic] FB meme, “Life is short. Make sure you spend as much time as possible on the internet arguing with strangers about politics.”