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Editorial: How to navigate the vast minefield of social media

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The Twitter logo above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in 2018. AP Photo/Richard Drew/File

If television in its infancy was a vast wasteland, then social media appears to be a vast minefield.

Seeing friends’ vacation pictures or videos of singing children and prancing pets can make this medium seem so warm, so fuzzy, so much fun. It’s wonderful how new technology can bring us together, right?

Well, yes, but when people turn to Facebook or Twitter to get political news or to weigh in on current events, things occasionally go boom.

It’s not a simple story. Indeed, reputable news outlets (including this one) regularly use social media to reach new readers or viewers, and the majority of social media users are well-intended people expressing themselves in a way that should be celebrated.

The problem lies downstream, in the byzantine ways news and views are shared (or not). That’s essentially the finding of Clemson University professors Patrick Warren and Darren Linvill who, as reporter Tony Bartelme reports today, recovered and analyzed more than 3 million tweets from a few thousand deleted Russian troll accounts.

The work of Russia’s Internet Research Agency has been reported before, but few Americans connected it to their daily lives.

The connection is real, and Mr. Bartelme found a tangible local example of Russian trolls’ attempt to sow division in our backyard. In 2016, on the one-year anniversary of the Emanuel AME Church massacre, a bogus, Russian-organized group called Black Matters US organized a rally in front of the church. Few attended, fortunately, but this remains a cautionary tale.

Far more significantly, Russia’s troll factory clicked into overdrive one month before the 2016 presidential election, spewing out 18,448 retweets of 4,239 posts from real Twitter users with extreme left and right views. In all, trolls and automated bot accounts sent out 1.4 million election-related tweets, reaching 288 million Twitter users, and much of that normalized a national sense of outrage, sarcasm, cynicism and chaos. Similar campaigns were waged on Facebook.

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“They played off the real disasters in American political discourse, the real problems that we have in our society,” Dr. Linvill told Mr. Bartelme.

To ignore this reality because you’re happy with the election results is not responsible. Americans don’t need foreign help in deciding who to vote for. Besides, what helps your favorite candidates today could destroy them tomorrow.

As some trolls vanish or are banished, others emerge. Not only does Russia remain in the game, China and Iran have set up troll factories. And the next general election is only 10 months away.

In May 1961, Newton Minow gave his first big speech as incoming chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. While he praised broadcasting as an honorable profession, he urged members of the National Association of Broadcasters to watch their networks for a full day. “Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Mr. Minow offered his critique at a time when television was seen as a powerful tool in fighting communism.

One could argue how much Mr. Minow or the broadcasters ever improved television. But right now, we have to improve our national savvy about social media. Trolling is sophisticated and often highly subtle in the way it amplifies real thoughts from real people with extremist ideas. It’s not that their voices have no place in the public debate, but we shouldn’t let foreign governments give them a louder microphone.

For now, it appears that all we can do is be more aware and take Dr. Linvill’s advice: “It’s important to remember that a lot of the voices you see on social media are just not representative of real discussions in the world.”

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