In May 2016, a Facebook page called Heart of Texas urged its nearly 254,000 followers to rise up against what it considered to be an urgent cultural menace. A mosque in Houston had opened up a new library, and Heart of Texas planned to protest. “Stop Islamization of Texas,” it warned.
Word of the protest spread quickly, but supporters of the mosque were also ready to mobilize. “Bigots are planning to intimidate through weaponized fear this Saturday at noon,” one of them wrote on Reddit. The post linked to a Facebook page for United Muslims of America, a group that said it was planning a counterprotest for the same time and place.
By now you might be able to guess the punch line here. Heart of Texas wasn’t a real group, as Business Insider later reported. United Muslims of America is a real organization, but the Facebook page promoting the counterprotest was not run by the actual group, as The Daily Beast found. Instead, according to documents made public last week by the Senate Intelligence Committee, both the pro- and anti-mosque protests had been planned and promoted by Russian trolls.
We may never know for certain if Russia’s campaign to influence American society through social networks changed the course of history in big ways — if it altered the election results, say. But it is already clear that Russia’s efforts did change the world in countless small ways. A few dozen real Americans did protest that Saturday in Houston. Videos of the protest show real emotion — people on opposite sides of the street screaming, swearing, and truly angry to have to share the country with the bozos on the other side.
CreditVideo by 4UTWO 2C
As I watched these videos recently, I had an epiphany about the Russia influence campaign. The Houston protest videos depicted a bunch of Americans duped into fighting one another in public, all at the whim of an unseen force that, through expert and surreptitious cajoling, had gotten them to lose control of themselves on camera. I’d seen this show many times before, and you’ve probably have, too. It’s called “The Bachelor.”
And not just the “The Bachelor,” but every other show like it. The Russians are running a reality show through Facebook and Twitter, and their contestants are all of us.
Over the past few days, I reached out to several reality show producers, asking them to compare the Russian digital influence campaign to the world of unscripted TV. The more they told me about reality shows, the more the metaphor seemed to explain Russia’s trolling campaign — how it worked, what it aimed to do and why campaigns like it will be so difficult to fight.
The only thing that matters is drama.
One of the more surprising findings about the Russian influence campaign is its political incoherence. The documents released so far suggest that, as in the Houston protest, the trolls didn’t seem to care very much about pushing one political side over another. They were happy to push all sides — to get people to argue for and against the Islamic library — which suggests their ultimate goal was to sow drama.
Why? Reality TV offers a guide: Because drama is easy to produce, and because drama sells.
On a show where the action stems from the interplay of people living in close quarters — like “The Bachelor” — there are often producers on set who subtly, and sometimes less than subtly, prod the contestants into acting in certain ways. How often this happens, and to what degree, varies greatly from show to show and is matter of great secrecy and controversy within the industry.
But pretty much everyone in the world of reality TV acknowledges it happens to some degree on most shows, and that there are certain basic ways to manufacture drama. Sarah Gertrude Shapiro, a former producer on “The Bachelor” who later created “Unreal,” a scripted show about the reality industry, said the key to manipulating contestants into acting a certain way is to “tap into their fears, passions and ego.”
On reality TV, producers can do that because they keep detailed dossiers on everyone on set. But guess what? Russian trolls had detailed dossiers too — and they could consult them at scale. Using Facebook’s exquisitely detailed ad-targeting and viral propagation systems, trolls could create content that perfectly matched your fears, passions and ego.
“Facebook pages are veritable instruction manuals for someone who wants to exploit you,” Ms. Shapiro said. Given these tools, the Russian plan was simple: “You just poke the bears, put them in a cage and let them fight.”
Case in point: In response to Heart of Texas’s “Stop Islamization” post, a Facebook user upset with the Houston mosque posted a comment suggesting that it be blown up. That prompted a local civil rights group to contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which in turn led to a story in the Houston Chronicle about the threat and the law enforcement response. Bear poked.
But it doesn’t end there. In the same way that cage-fighting bears sells on reality TV, such conflict also sells on Facebook’s News Feed, which rewards posts that get a lot of engagement, as well as on Twitter and the larger ecosystem of amped-up cable news that feeds off viral content.
The Russian trolls clearly understood this. They based their campaigns on well-known divisions — racial, political, religious — and the conflicts they generated spread far across social media, and were then widely covered by the news media.
“If Simon Cowell once tapped into a main artery of negativity in American life, Facebook and Twitter and 24-hour news really picked that up,” said Mike Duffy, a co-founder of Ugly Brother Studios, which produces many unscripted shows, referring to the acerbic judge of “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent.” “They’re pushing the same types of bombastic characters, and they’re seeing a ratings increase.”
We’ll never know what’s really real.
There’s a surprising amount of disagreement among experts about how real reality TV is. One camp suggests it’s not real at all. Jennifer L. Pozner, a media critic and author of “Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV,” said that reality producers go to fantastic lengths to manipulate contestants, denying them food and communication, plying them with alcohol, and ultimately chopping up footage to make it look like they have said and done things that they haven’t.
“The contestants have zero ability to contribute narratives about themselves,” she said.
There’s another camp that suggests that while the circumstances on most shows are contrived, the contestants’ emotional responses are deeply real.
“The way we generate drama on reality TV is to put someone in the most extreme environment possible and then watch for their genuine reaction,” said Troy DeVolld, a longtime producer and the author of “Reality TV: An Insider’s Guide to TV’s Hottest Market.” In fact, he said, reality TV would be boring if that wasn’t the case — the whole reason we watch is “we can tell how seriously everyone is taking what’s going on, even in the most absurd of circumstances.”
I’m not here to adjudicate this debate. But I will point out that it matches the question at the heart of the Russian-influence saga: Did Russia’s trolls persuade Americans to act in ways that they wouldn’t have otherwise — or were they merely providing us a framework for expressing our deeply held political and social ideas?
The answer is not obvious. On the one hand, it’s clear that there are cases — like the Houston protest — where the Russian campaign prompted real people to take real action in the real world.
What’s less clear is whether we should discount those protesters’ actions and emotions simply because they were influenced by a Russian Facebook campaign. After all, both sides were genuinely angry about the mosque; whoever inspired the campaign, their feelings weren’t fake news.
This happens on reality TV, too. Though everyone understands “The Bachelor” is contrived, there are “Bachelor” winners who have been married for more than a decade. At some point, reality TV becomes reality.
This gets to what’s really pernicious about the Russian campaign. It so deftly blended artifice and reality — for so many people, across so many issues, in so many places — that it is impossible, now, for any of us to tell where reality and fakery begin and end.
Is it the trolls’ world, or is it ours?