Email #311: “protecting our electoral system”?

Do you know who your Friends are?

Your Facebook page has 14,098 likes and 15,549 followers. Your Twitter account @bobgoodlatte6 has 1,758 followers. I would have assumed they were all legitimate supporters, the vast majority of them constituents living right here in Virginia’s 6th Congressional District. But the Senate Intelligence Committee warns otherwise.

Though its full report will not be completed for months, the Committee reinforced the federal intelligence community’s unanimous conclusion that Russia did attempt to sway last year’s election—and that they will continue to do in this coming election and next year’s too.

Republican co-chair Senator Burr said last week: “The Russian intelligence service is determined — clever — and I recommend that every campaign and every election official take this very seriously. You can’t walk away from this and believe that Russia’s not currently active.”

Virginia Senator and co-chair Warner added: “There needs to be a more aggressive whole-of-government approach in terms of protecting our electoral system. Remember, to make a change even in a national election doesn’t require penetration into 50 states. You could pick two or three states in two or three jurisdictions and alter an election.”

This is why Russia focused its Facebook ads so aggressively in Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the three upset states that elected President Trump by margins of 0.7 (22,748 votes) and 0.2 points (10,704 votes). You, in contrast, defeated your Democrat challenger with a total of 225,471 votes to his 112,170. If you add in the votes from the third upset state of Pennsylvania, the President’s margin of victory was still only 77,000 votes. Yours was 113,301. You took your single district by more votes than the President took the forty districts in the top three battleground states combined. That’s how close the election was and how vulnerable future elections remain.

There is now conclusive evidence that Russia used Facebook and Twitter through ads and fake user accounts. The Senate Intelligence Committee is examining over 3,000 Facebook ads purchased at a cost of $100,000 by Russian agents disguised as U.S. citizens to influence the election. After creating fake news websites to disseminate anti-Clinton propaganda, Russians then used social media to promote them. Their fake U.S. identities included Facebook user “Melvin Redick,” an apparent father in Harrisburg, PA who posted: “These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US. Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!” Other Russian agents targeted Bernie Sanders’ Facebook page with comments like: “Those who voted for Bernie, will not vote for corrupt Hillary! The Revolution must continue! #NeverHillary.” Twitter is even more vulnerable with hundreds of fake accounts, including automated bots that drove the Russian propaganda hashtag “#HillaryDown” into a trending Twitter topic.

The Senate Intelligence Committee warns that many fake accounts are still active and new accounts are spreading across multiple social media platforms. What steps are you taking to ensure that your own Facebook pages and Twitter posts are not being used by foreign agents to heighten political discord? What steps are you taking to verify the legitimacy of your 15,549 followers? Facebook has removed “Melvin Redick” and dozens of other fakes. It’s a simple process. You look at the user’s homepage and if there’s something suspicious about it, you inform Facebook who sends a request to verify their identity. If the user ignores the request, as fake-identity users do, the account is closed. And, more importantly, our country is one more degree safer from foreign influences trying to profit from our political polarization.

Or are you disregarding the Committee’s warning because fake users would aid your election prospects as they aided the President’s last year?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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