Full disclosure: I am not a Russian troll.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal published an analysis of nearly 10,000 tweets published by accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian-backed organization that Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted for its attempts to interfere with the American electoral process.
The analysis, undertaken by researchers at Clemson University, found that just under two-thirds (63 percent) of the health care-related tweets trolled for Republican causes—that is, opposing Obamacare or supporting its repeal—while one-sixth (16 percent) trolled for Democratic ones, by supporting the law and opposing “repeal-and-replace” efforts last year.
It should go without saying, but no one should support efforts to interfere with, or otherwise corrupt, the American democratic process. Particularly given the way in which Russia’s authoritarian regime has stifled dissent and dismantled the country’s free and independent media, the IRA and Russian President Vladimir Putin have little business trying to lecture the United States on how to run a government.
That said, it seems unsurprising that the Russian government would attempt to use health care as a “wedge” issue to divide groups of Americans. The Journal article notes that “health policy [was a] natural target for the [Russian] provocateurs.”
In 2010, Democrats passed their health-care law through Congress on strict party lines, with not a single Republican vote. Health care in general, and Obamacare in particular, have remained polarizing issues ever since. The Journal also noted that the trolls’ Obamacare-related activity spiked last spring and summer, during the heat of the debate over “repeal-and-replace” legislation in Congress.
However, the IRA did not confine its involvement in health care to debates surrounding Obamacare. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health last month, and entitled “Weaponized Health Communication,” found that Russian bots also disproportionately referenced vaccines as a subject of controversy. Many of the trolls also attempted to link vaccines to other hot-button issues, such as race or class.
Health care, unlike most other issues, remains intensely personal to each American. Whereas many Americans might not care much about energy policy, or see how the North Atlantic Treaty Organization affects their daily lives, people have frequent and personal interactions with the health care system, whether for themselves or someone close to them. Everyone has a story and an opinion about health care.
Health care also has become a flashpoint for long-simmering political debates over the size and scope of government. Conservatives and libertarians oppose Obamacare because they view it as “big government” overreach. They would repeal the law, and scale back the involvement of government in general, and the federal government in particular, over the health care system.
By contrast, liberals want to go even further to expand government’s scope and reach—hence the renewed push for a single-payer health system. The Left views health care as a right, the number of uninsured and underinsured people as a scandal, and health concerns as a moral imperative that only government can address. Likewise, the vaccine debate plays to similar questions about the extent to which government can and should involve itself in health choices.
For all their efforts, it’s difficult to determine whether the IRA trolls had any measurable effects. I don’t know whether Russian trolls retweeted my content or not, and it wouldn’t affect my views if I did. (The Journal claimed that the trolls “retweeted respected analysts,” so I probably don’t have much to worry about on that count.) I certainly wouldn’t take much notice of tweets claiming, as the Journal article cites, that “the health care law was a weapon of mass destruction or more dangerous than the Islamic State.”
Almost one year ago, I wrote that “wisdom does not always lie with the loudest and the strongest. It requires us to listen to discern its voice.” A medium that attempts to digest “news” into a 280-character format seems tailor-made for the type of instant, emotional reactions that the IRA desires as a means to foment discord and dissent.
Combating Russian trolls requires actions by law enforcement and social media companies, yes, but it also requires some level of introspection by each one of us. Instead of simply “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” a phenomenon Neil Postman first described more than three decades ago, we should spend less time passively consuming media and more time thinking about what we consume. As I wrote last October:
At times, the cacophony of voices on Twitter, cable news, and in myriad other cultural venues might prompt us to wonder if anyone can make sense of it all, and maintain that inner peace. The story of Elijah on Horeb reminds us that wisdom and understanding remain always present in our lives—if only we search hard enough to find them.