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Our View: Bots and sockpuppets are deepening the political divide

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A Facebook posting by a group called "Being Patriotic" was connected to what federal authorities say was a Russian social media propaganda effort. A federal grand jury indictment Feb. 16 charged 13 Russians and three Russian entities with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The "Being Patriotic" group promoted and organized two political rallies in New York according to the indictment.
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After special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies on conspiracy charges stemming from an online propaganda effort, it’s appropriate to take stock of what’s real.

The indicted companies, Internet Research Agency and two companies used to finance it, are popularly referred to as a "troll farm" — a home base for online propaganda tools seeking to amplify a particular message or narrative of events. The tools they deployed were a combination of bots (fully automated fake accounts), sockpuppets (accounts created by one individual posing as someone else) and troll accounts.

These accounts are layered into the authentic, relevant and meaningful human fabric of social media. Their mission: to spread false information — fake news — and make fringe opinions seem more prevalent and powerful than they are. In other words, to make Americans on opposing sides of the political spectrum seem crazy to each other.

The goal of these bad actors and many others is to harden your attitudes and political views, and deepen the divides in this country.

A recent New York Times article detailed some of the ways these efforts have worked. The most startling cases: Russian trolls created two dummy organizations, The Heart of Texas and United Muslims of America, and organized a pair of opposing rallies for the same day in the same location. People showed up at both the "Stop the Islamization of Texas" and the "Save Islamic Knowledge" rallies and faced off outside the Islamic Da’wah Center.

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In the aftermath of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Facebook was set upon almost immediately by bots with hashtags both for and against gun control.

So how does one sort out what’s true and what’s not online? Spend more time with known, trusted, credible news sources, and spend more time discussing issues with people you respect and trust — over coffee, on the phone, wherever, just away from your keyboard and smartphone.

Life’s too short to spend it bickering with strangers — or worse, with bots and sockpuppets. Stop feeding the trolls, and the companies who harbor them.

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