Russians Will Target Liberals on Social Media for the Midterm Elections

We learned a lot about how Russia weaponized social media from the Mueller indictments. The goals were twofold: (1) damage Hillary Clinton and (2) sow discord. We might be witnessing a trial run of what they will attempt for the upcoming midterm elections with the emergence of a campaign using the hashtag #WalkAway.

To give you a brief rundown, it all started with a Facebook page titled, “The Unsilent Minority” and a video by someone whose name is Brandon Straka.  You can watch the entire six minute video at that link, but here are a few excerpts if you’d rather not:

Once upon a time, I was a liberal. Well, to be honest, less than a year ago, I was still a liberal… I reject a system which allows an ambitious, misinformed and dogmatic mob to suppress free speech, create false narratives, and apathetically steamroll over the truth. I reject hate. These are the reasons why I became a liberal. And these are the same reasons why I am now walking away.

Let’s stop for a minute and think about the message here: “I was a Democrat/progressive for my entire life but I decided to abandon my values and switch parties when the least popular, least qualified and most unprincipled Republican president in modern American history took office.” That is patently absurd.

Last weekend #WalkAway went viral. But as Caroline O. has meticulously documented, it did so via Trump supporters with a huge assist from bots, trolls and Russian accounts. In addition, all of that has been amplified by Kremlin-controlled media.

On June 28, Sputnik featured a segment about the campaign on its “Fault Lines” radio show. On July 3, RT promoted a video showcasing the movement on its YouTube page, and, a short time later, published an article about the campaign on its website (archived link). The founder of the “WalkAway Movement,” Brandon Straka, even did an exclusive interview with RT this week.

Caroline also documented some of the narratives that have been associated with #WalkAway.

* Portraying the Democratic party as “sick,” “crazy,” and as the symbol of corruption, hate, division, and destruction.

* Framing progressive values as anti-American.

* Accusing Democrats of treating Blacks as “slaves” and “second-class citizens.”

* Rehashing the 2016 Democratic primary election.

* Phrases such as, “I was a lifelong Democrat,” “I’ve always voted for Democrats,” “I voted for Obama,” “Today’s Democratic party is not the party I joined X years ago,” “I didn’t leave the Democratic party—the Democratic party left me,” and “The Democratic party no longer represents me.”

* Using identity politics … to attack “the identity politics of the left.”

* Exploiting existing divisions around issues like immigration, and amplifying the extremes. In some cases, this also involved misrepresenting positions and statements…

This is a test and/or trial run for what is to come.

Although Russia did target the left in 2016, there are reasons to believe that the left will be the target in 2018—meaning, the primary target. This doesn’t mean we won’t see a repeat of 2016 tactics targeting Trump supporters and right-wing voters, but rather that these tactics may be used as a supplement to those aimed at left-leaning voters. Thus, the “WalkAway Campaign” should serve as a warning to Democratic voters, who need to be prepared not to walk into the traps that are being and will be set.

Consider, for example, that at the same time Russian-linked Twitter accounts were amplifying #WalkAway and joining Trump supporters in reprimanding Democrats for a supposed lack of civility, they were also boosting the hashtags #AbolishICE and #MaxineWaters. In other words, they were working both sides of divisive issues and amplifying the most polarizing positions (and in some cases, intentionally misrepresenting those positions) in an apparent effort to erase the middle ground, discourage reasoned discourse, and make it seem like compromise is either not possible or not desirable

Democrats need to be aware that these strategies will be used with increasing frequency, intensity, and sophistication as the 2018 midterms draw nearer. There is an alarming degree of hubris among some non-Trump voters, who seem to believe that Trump supporters are uniquely susceptible to social media manipulation, disinformation, and other types of information warfare. While it’s true that Democrats and other non-Trump voters have more readily accepted the evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and has continued its effort to sow chaos and discord in American society, this has not necessarily translated into preparedness—and you can be sure that political operatives in Russia and in the U.S. have taken note of this.

That bolded part is critical and replicates the tactics the Russians used in 2016. You have been warned.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .