In the 1950’s, as Senator Joe McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt degraded the nation’s political culture and terrorized the entertainment industry, a young writer made a breakthrough with his award-winning play, “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” He began to receive offers to write novels, screenplays, and television shows. But he frequently found himself being censored by sponsors who were loathe to back any work that might invite scrutiny from Washington. Eventually, Rod Serling realized that the only way he could say what he wanted to say was through the indirection and metaphor afforded by the genre of science fiction. Although some of the episodes of the show he created, The Twilight Zone, are pure sci-fi, many others are thinly-veiled political statements. Some are direct shots at Joe McCarthy.
In The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street, the residents of Maple Street see a light in the sky that looks like a spaceship. They gather in the street to speculate about what they just saw. The more they talk, the more they reinforce each other’s fears. Someone raises the possibility that aliens have come to invade Earth. The power to the neighborhood fails inexplicably. One resident can’t start his car, then the car starts by itself. Terror overtakes the neighbors. Someone suggests that the aliens must have a spy who told them that Maple Street would be a good place to begin their invasion. In a flash, the neighbors turn on each other violently, and Maple Street descends into chaos.
It doesn’t end the way you’d think. The light really was a spaceship. Aliens really are planning to invade. They’ve been standing on a hill outside town, playing with the power and preying on people’s fear. This is how they will conquer Earth without firing a shot: they will turn the humans against each other and watch while we destroy ourselves.
Today, the monsters are returning. Not to Maple Street, but to our new virtual neighborhood: social media.
In 2020, I’m supporting Senator Amy Klobuchar for President. The reasons don’t matter for purposes of this post. The point is that as a supporter of Sen. Klobuchar, I get her Facebook posts in my feed. A few I read, most I glance at, some I ignore. Regardless of the subject matter, however, the comment threads are uniformly terrifying.
Today Sen. Klobuchar posted a story about a staffer of hers receiving a fellowship, and offering her congratulations. As you might expect, the comments section went right off the rails. One Jeff Ritzko responded, “Remember 9/11.” Huh? What does that have to do with the post? It gets much worse. Regina Massini said, “I SEE YOU’RE A LYING DEM-O-RAT WHOSE [sic] ON THE SIDE OF THE MUSLIMS[.]” The all-caps are all hers; everyone knows you’re more persuasive when you shout. The award for Most Deranged Comment of The Day, however, goes to one Mark Flesberg, who writes, “OMAR MARRIED HER BROTHER. AMY SUPPORTS HAMAS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. TODAY’S DEMS ARE A RADICAL BUNCH. #OBAMUNISM”
At this point, you’re probably reaching for the Tums. What the hell is wrong with this country that people think these things? How did their perspective become so distorted that they’re perfectly comfortable spouting lunatic ideas in public?
Put down the Tums. Breathe. It isn’t as bad as all that. Or maybe it’s worse.
Jeff Ritzko’s Facebook profile shows no activity since 2012. It’s been dormant for seven years. It has no pictures of him. It lists no family or personal information. The chances are very good that either the profile is fake, or it’s a dormant profile that has been hijacked by domestic or foreign trolls.
Regina Massini’s Facebook profile consists entirely of a cover photo and one picture of a document or web page from 2018. The profile lists no friends, no location information, and has no original content. Yet suddenly she’s active in political discussions on Facebook. The chances of her being a real person are low.
Mark Flesberg sounds like the neighbor you shoo your kids away from because you’re pretty sure he’s unhinged and you don’t know what he might do. Except that Mr. Flesberg probably isn’t your neighbor, because he probably isn’t real. His profile has no pictures of himself, and lists no friends. There is no identifiable personal information. The most recent activity is one picture in 2018 and one picture in 2016. And now he’s suddenly active in the threads of a politician whom he opposes? Doubtful.
But wait, you say: perhaps these people just have their privacy settings turned up to eleven. Well, I’ve seen real profiles like that. You can still see profile pictures that show the same person in different settings. You can still see activity. You can still see original content, not just reposted memes or forwarded stories from biased sources on the lunatic fringe. The profiles I’m flagging have none of the hallmarks of authenticity.
Think about it, folks: if you support a candidate, you might follow that candidate’s activities. You might comment on them from time to time. But starting arguments with people whom you will never convince of anything by making inflammatory comments on the threads of candidates whom you oppose is a total waste of time. Sane people don’t waste their time like that.
The point isn’t that the political right is nuts, because this isn’t a right-wing phenomenon. Quite the contrary. Russian trolls are on every side of every argument. Their purpose is not to convince you of any particular thing. Their purpose is to convince you only that they are your neighbor—and to make you angry. Their purpose is to drive a wedge between you and the people with whom you share your community, your city, your state, and your country. In this way will we become too divided to act purposefully as a nation. In this way will we destroy ourselves from within, just like the residents of Maple Street.
The measure of how effective these trolls are is that it takes extreme effort and supreme self-control not to be drawn into arguing with them. The argument is what they want. They feed on anger. Irrational argument turns political adversaries into enemies, and enemies fight to kill.
The United States has the strongest military on the planet, and it isn’t close. We are unconquerable from without. Any country that seeks to do us harm must weaken us from within. It must make us so distrustful of our leaders, our institutions and each other that we refuse to believe that existential threats are real. It must paralyze us into inaction by distracting us with internecine battles. Right now, the Russians are doing a pretty good job of that.
The enemies of this country are real. They do not live on your block. They do not vote for the party you don’t belong to. They are standing on their hills outside our borders, playing with our emotions and preying on our fear.