Disinformation Has Neighbors Fighting in Small-Town America

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Gary Fiyalko doesn’t wear a mask. Won’t wear one. Gary believes masks are for political sheep. He’s ready for this Covid hoax to be over. Layne Postilion came to a realization over the summer: She cannot associate—either online or IRL—with those who are reaping the benefits of a racist society, regardless of what that means for her small business. Randy Urbance thinks there’s probably not much of a difference between a vote for President Trump and a vote for Joe Biden. Gary, Layne, and Randy say they no longer talk to some friends and family because of what they believe.

What else do they have in common? They’re all Americans in their 40s who grew up in a small town called Milford, Mich., population 6,515. Milford is a place where it’s hard to walk down Main Street without seeing someone you know. It’s car country, home to the General Motors Proving Ground. It has a couple of stoplights and a Fourth of July parade that makes you wonder if you’ve traveled back in time. Milford also sits in one of the states that will decide the presidency next month. Its votes are valuable. But there’s a war in Milford and small-town America: It’s neighbor vs. neighbor when it comes to politics, race relations, and public health.

Some folks are abandoning long-held friendships. Many families aren’t speaking. The holidays may prove particularly tough. It’s hard being civil. There’s a “BLM, Masks, Covid-19” administrator’s note on the town’s Facebook Bulletin Board that warns: “EVERYTHING is political and polarized these days.” It reminds visitors to the page that “hostile comments or posts or wishing harm against any individuals or groups will be grounds for removal.”

I live in New York, but I’m from Milford. Gary, Layne, and Randy, as well as many others in this story, were my friends and classmates when I lived there. The views they’re forming are guided by their trust—or lack thereof—in government leaders, their personal experiences, and an inevitable layer of mis- and disinformation sprinkled on top of everyone’s media interactions, mostly on Facebook and Twitter, but also on more traditional media outlets such as broadcast television. In Milford, only a year ago, the words antifa, boogaloo, and QAnon might as well have been whimsical names from a children’s book. Now the mere mention of these or some other social media-soaked concept can start a fight.

In Michigan, such feelings go well beyond Milford. An alleged right-wing militia attempt to kidnap the governor and put her on trial shows how fractured sensitives are statewide. According to an FBI affidavit, the group “encouraged each other to talk to their neighbors and spread their message.” The FBI raided a Hartland Township home in connection with the case. That’s a little over 10 miles away from Milford. The high schools used to play each other in sports. The Detroit Free Press reported that one of the people in custody facing state charges is from Milford.

Back to the ill feelings in my hometown. “It’s been hard to deal with,” Emily Bell, 43, a native Milfordian, tells me via a Facebook message. She runs a small book publishing house about 30 miles from where she grew up and cites “disinforming sources” as a primary factor in the collapse of multiple long-term relationships. “I feel like people used to trust me, or at least trust my integrity. But now some of those people dismiss me immediately, even when I’m quoting verifiable facts in an appropriate context.” An example of a subject that’s caused rancor? “White privilege.”

Demographically, Milford is primarily white and working class. It has a Republican state representative, Matt Maddock. And like many other small towns across the country, Milford held a Black Lives Matter protest this summer. In a video circulated on the Facebook feeds of many who attended the protest, Maddock’s wife, Meshawn, is seen filming the march on her phone and giving the protesters the thumbs-down. Meshawn responded on Facebook, too, acknowledging the event but saying the sexually explicit wording on some protest signs triggered her reaction. Police Chief Tom Lindberg, who escorted the march down Main Street, says he’s lost a friend after a conversation about BLM.

Even without offering up fake news, social media can intensify differences among people in small towns. “Political conflicts in families are already bad enough, because the emotions are intense and there’s so much personal history,” says Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland. “Adding disinformation to the mix—which is literally designed to increase conflict and polarization—is a recipe for trouble.”

One recent event seemed to have stunned current and former citizens of Milford into no comments: President Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis. Few were willing to weigh in. Kris Kramer, a musician who now lives two towns over from Milford, simply said, “I don’t know what to believe any more.”

It’s what people believe that’s the problem. In 2018 the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report outlining how the vast majority of Russia’s disinformation efforts in 2016 focused on America’s racial divide. It hasn’t stopped. Have you seen the two tweets from people who sound like liberal Americans slamming Kamala Harris? Both carry Twitter’s label for “Russia state-affiliated media.” Russia and other state actors may “create new websites, change existing websites, and share social media content to spread false information in an attempt to discredit the electoral process and undermine confidence in U.S. democratic institutions,” said the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in a mid-September public service announcement.

It’s one thing when mis- and disinformation invade our social networks because a covert, state actor is spreading it. But the moment you send it to me, and I tell Gary, who posts it on Facebook, so Layne can comment, and Randy can tweet it out—what then? A retweet from a trusted friend may carry more weight and rhetorical ammunition than a Pulitzer Prize-winning exposé. And it can cause you to stop talking to those who tweet otherwise. Randy, 44, the friend who shrugs at the Trump-Biden choice, says, “If political tribes end up like Scientology-esque cults where you have to isolate yourself with your tribe, we’re doomed.”

It’s getting harder for people to tell real from fake news online. On Sept. 1, 2020, Facebook said it had removed a series of social media pages linked to a purported online newsroom called peacedata.net. This came after an FBI tip that Peacedata wasn’t a newsroom at all. Rather, it was a covert influence operation run out of Russia by its state-sponsored disinformation arm, the Internet Research Agency. This was not a group of bots and stolen images. It’s the first known instance of the IRA using artificial intelligence to create newsroom avatars, according to the Internet analysis company Graphika Inc. Although a machine created these avatars, the IRA also hired unwitting human journalists to write for the website and paid them. These humans enhanced the appearance of authenticity of Peacedata’s “journalism.”

Peacedata was trying to build an audience on the left, with content critical of both presidential campaigns. Why? It’s a strategy designed to split centrist and progressive Democrats, says Bret Schafer, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. They seem to be targeting people such as Randy, who’s dubious the election will have much impact on the life of the average voter.

For every peacedata.net takedown, there’s at least 10 or 20 more sites still out there, Schafer says. If you’ve been on the internet, watched TV, read a newspaper, or flipped through a magazine in 2020, you’ve likely been exposed.

Take the misinformation mentions in the days right after George Floyd’s death, the event that sparked the racial justice protests sweeping the nation. According to media analytics company Zignal Labs Inc., in the two weeks between May 25 and June 9, the number of George Floyd and BLM misinformation mentions totaled 2,613,854 across social, traditional, online, and broadcast media. The Senate Select Committee report said it found that in 2016 “no single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans.”

Layne, 44, whose biological father is Black, is an active user of Facebook and Instagram, and gets her information from the BBC and NPR. She reads Vanity Fair. This year’s ongoing racial justice protests have made her hyperaware of racism. “It’s like turning over rocks,” she says. “You think you are just looking at a rock, but underneath there are worms and rotting things. There are a lot of people I thought were friends or family, but it turns out they are racist AF.” She won’t take on customers who are anti-Black at her home decor and design business in Douglas, Mich. She says she’s “very public on Instagram and Facebook about the values I stand for, both personally and for my business.” Her mother worries about her safety, but Layne says, “I was never safe.”

When my friends post disinformation, they may be getting an invisible boost. It’s deliberately amplified by social media, says Laura Galante, founder of cyber research company Galante Strategies LLC. “Facebook has an algorithm that’s trained to go after the most reptilian, fear-driven, and exciting content,” she says. “That’s what gets the clicks. That’s what gets driven toward you, what people are most likely to see. So Facebook has an incentive to structure it as such. They know the information ecosystems that are propelled and live on their site are toxic. But at this point, Frankenstein has gotten out of bed and is roaming the streets.” Galante says Facebook’s business model feeds the monster.

Not true, says Facebook, in an emailed statement: “There’s no silver bullet to fighting misinformation, which is why we attack it from all angles: We take down coordinated networks and fake accounts and reduce the distribution of clickbait and spammy posts since people on Facebook don’t want this and we don’t benefit from it. We also work with over 70 fact-checking partners who debunk viral hoaxes. When fact-checkers determine content to be false, we show strong warning labels so people who come across these posts, try to share them, or already have, can see the truth since hoaxes are borderless and don’t depend on any one platform.”

Still, the immediacy of a tweet or a Facebook post from a friend may obviate whatever emerges from a fact-checking process. It’s because most disinformation deals with ingrained and emotional biases. “The Russians never created fault lines in U.S. society. They merely widened the fault lines that already exist,” says Herb Lin, professor of cyber policy and security at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. “In this context, many Americans on both the left and the right are useful idiots to be used by those seeking to damage U.S. societal cohesion.” He adds, “Foreign actors have important roles, but it is increasingly obvious that they don’t need to create dis- and misinformation.” They just have to “amplify and spread” the sentiments Americans have had in the first place.

When I asked Gary how he formed his views about masks, he told me he watches Fox News and CNN, and follows some conservative groups on Facebook. But he also says he just knew from the beginning that “The over-reaction to Covid was a scam. Knew it in my gut. It was just common sense.”

Lin says, “The nation needs to collectively acknowledge that all of this is a problem.” After that happens, some form of government regulation and reforms by the tech sector itself may be required. “After years of trying, the platforms still don’t have disinformation under control. So we are now in a place where everyone feels hopeless and overwhelmed,” says Karen Kornbluh, senior fellow and director at the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund. “To get back to a place where the internet supports democracy, we must change the incentives.”

Galante and others want government intervention. “This is a place for congressional oversight,” she says, adding that she wants to see transparency around what algorithms are being asked to do on platforms of publicly traded companies.

But all that is tough to translate for small-town America. A complete overhaul of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 might be easier than a reconciliation between estranged siblings or friends with hurt feelings after bitter arguments over Facebook posts. Down at a local coffee shop on Main Street, owner James Courtney, 44, tells me he’s seen change for the worse. “A few years ago, Milford was a tight community where everyone knew each other and everyone was friendly,” he says. “But now it’s become politically segregated, even in the shop.” He’s noticed folks choosing to sit only among their own political cliques. That, he says, “is sad to see.”

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