How I, Joel Mathis, accidentally helped Russians get Donald Trump elected

laptop computer, laptop keyword, Alex Knight

Dear Rebecca:

We’ve been so busy being angry about the Florida school massacre — rightly — that we’ve not taken notice of Friday’s indictment of 13 Russians accused of using American social media to campaign for Donald Trump.

For example, one ad innocuously instructed people to follow a Facebook page if they were a follower of Jesus, but the page later spread a meme of Hillary Clinton with devil horns.

The Internet Research Agency’s ads on Facebook also only made up a tiny portion of its overall strategy. Facebook estimates that 10 million people saw paid ads, whereas up to 150 million people saw other content from fake accounts.

But the Russians’ influence was even broader, because of how other Facebook users reacted to their posts. Posts on just six of the IRA’s most popular Facebook pages received 340 million shares and nearly 20 million interactions, including likes, comments, page shares, and emoji reactions, according to Albright’s analysis.

Now. I don’t believe I spread any of these memes. But I might’ve. That’s not really the point.

But here’s where I blame myself: I’ve spent the last decade, at least, arguing on the Internet. I helped fertilize the Facebook soil where Russian flowers bloomed.

And I did it a lot. It has been, frankly, my most-consuming activity: I’ve done it professionally, I’ve done it as an amateur, but whatever has happened, I’ve kept the argument going.

Listen to this testimony from a professional Russian troll:

Who really reads the comments under news articles, anyway? Especially when they were so obviously fake. People working there had no literary interest or abilities. These were mechanical texts. It was a colossal labor of monkeys, it was pointless. For Russian audiences, at least. But for Americans, it appears it did work. They aren’t used to this kind of trickery. They live in a society in which it’s accepted to answer for your words. And here — I was amazed how everyone was absolutely sure of their impunity, even as they wrote incredibly offensive comments. They were sure that with the anonymity of the Internet, no one would find them.


Democracy needs robust debate. But I’ve been part of creating an ugly tone. All too often, I’ve failed to treat my ideological rivals as my neighbor — failed to consider why they might believe what they believe and instead (lazily) attribute evil motivations to them. I have raised the temperature when I didn’t need to do it. Sometimes I did it for fun.

And now, it’s had consequences.

This isn’t just my fault, of course. But I don’t get to avoid the fact that I’m part of the problem,either.

The temptation is to go on strike, to declare silence as an act of rebellion, and simply to shut up after that. But … I’m not built that way. Maybe I should be. But I’m not.

So. How to resist? How to do better? The time to stop is now.


Author: joeldermole

Joel Mathis is a freelance writer who lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife and son. He spent nine years as a syndicated columnist, co-writing the RedBlueAmerica column as the liberal half of a point-counterpoint duo. His honors include awards for best online commentary from the Online News Association and (twice) from the City and Regional Magazine Association.

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