Recent MIT research into an internal Facebook report unveiled that of Facebook’s top twenty Christian pages, 19 out of 20 were run by troll farms in Kosovo and Macedonia–likely the same Russian-backed “trolls” responsible for the 2016 election.
The largest of those Christian Facebook pages, twenty times larger than the next, had a reach of 75 million users, according to the report, and 95% of the users that page reached had never even followed the page.
Before diving into this, I think a few notes are in order. First, the internal report also looked at other groups the troll farms targeted, including pages for BIPOC and women, but I’m focusing here on the Christian pages because I’m interested in the intersection of Christian theology and disinformation.
Likewise, I should note that “troll farm” is the language you tend to see to describe this kind of disinformation campaign, but that language connotes something less-than-sinister from what it actually is. What appears to be happening is a sophisticated method of sprinkling divisive content among otherwise positive content to fuel tribalism and chaos in the United States. But a better way of describing that is to call it what it is–psychological warfare.
For the Christian pages, the content of their posts may have seemed at times to be relatively innocuous–a Bible verse, a platitude about God’s creation, articles about people being helped in a disaster, etc. But when divisive, political content is spread few and far between posts, and often subtle in nature, these bad actors are able to trick the audience into missing what’s really going on.
Worse, almost none of the content is original, according to the Facebook report. In fact, the report indicates that the admins are likely not Christian (or could care less) and “have a disdain” for their audience. They don’t care about engagement, either. They simply take articles and other content they find online and repost it on the page, often rehashing old posts from a Christian and/or conservative media ecosystem.
Likely in doing so (and even when none of the content may be expressly political), the trolls are working to form an identity around the kinds of memes and articles that are shared, and who shares them.
Think for a moment of the way religious groups use symbols and language to convey their identity: a Catholic might identify strongly with images of Mary, Jesus on a crucifix, the stages of the cross, the Catechism, etc., whereas a Methodist may identify more with the cross and flame, an empty crucifix, red hymnals and the songs of the Wesley brothers, so on and so forth.
These images and texts form an identity not just to the religion but to the people who share in that faith. Facebook memes and articles posted on a Christian page have the same function of building a kind of tribe or online community among the people who “like” or “share” these platitudes, verses, and articles–and just as that identity forms an in-group, it also helps to signal who isn’t in the group.
So much of this is just, well, marketing and advertising, except whereas, say, an ad for something like milk or coffee functions to get you to buy those products, this form of “advertising” works such that the goal is not economic but ideological. And it works even better when the advertising isn’t clearly an ad, like when a character in your favorite TV show is drinking a coke.
In the case of the memes on Facebook, the products being sold are lies–or truths amplified to evoke an emotive response, especially if that response is anger, despair, or works to build solidarity among like-minded thinkers. The more people are driven toward certain modes of thinking and less-exposed to outsider influence or thought, the more tribalistic the society becomes.
Simultaneously, building a media ecosystem with rehashed, garbage articles helps discredit rigorous, credible journalism and shifts trust away from known, established media outlets putting it instead in the hands of the few “trolls” in Kosovo or Macedonia.
And conservative Christians fit the profile perfectly for a target group if you’re selling lies and fomenting anger: they’re naturally bent toward authoritarianism; their faith is built more on fear (of hell, for example) than it is on, well, faith. Because of that fear, their belief system is superficial and their hermeneutic literalist, leaving them focused more on symbols (the cross, the flag, etc.) than on what the symbols mean. And in recent years, at least, they’ve embraced the concept of constantly playing the role of the victim. That means anyone not like them is to blame, and so they’re already naturally tribalistic.
That all makes it easy to use platitudes and Bible verses to draw them to your message. And it makes it easier for them to identify the in-group as friend from the out-group who’s foe.
If you’re actively trying to drive a society toward tribal thinking where people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, all so the powerful can consolidate their power, it makes perfect sense to start among those who are going to be prone to believe whatever firms up their preconceived notions about the world, which is also why you tie religion and politics together.
It’s a lot easier to convince someone to take on your political worldview if you’ve already convinced them you share their view that the world was created four thousand years ago. Get them on the religion train, and when you change tracks toward a certain political bent, they may never even notice, especially when the driver is the only one with the view of the tracks.
As a society, we depend on having access to reliable information about our communities so we’re able to make informed decisions about our lives. We need to be at the front of our own trains, to run with the metaphor, even if someone else built the tracks. Take that away from us, and someone else will make the decisions for you. That’s precisely what’s happening here.
And this is an age-old Russian playbook, one that was used in Ukraine most recently to discredit military and civilian political leaders. Russia plays all sides of the coin, which is why you may have heard they were spreading disinformation among supporters of Hillary, Bernie, and Biden–not just Trump. That they invested so heavily in conservatives is no surprise, given that getting Trump elected was key because having Trump in office furthered their primary goal: to spread division and chaos. But it wasn’t then and isn’t now so much about who is in power as it is about who we trust. And what we’re willing to do to those we don’t.
You might say their efforts have paid off. We all saw what happened on January 6, of course. New research out of the University of Chicago indicates that “21 million [Americans] also agree that ‘use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.'” That’s a lot of people suddenly abandoning democracy and embracing violence. How could that shift have happened? Well, Facebook pages alone aren’t to blame, but these folks in Kosovo and Macedonia sure didn’t help in getting all these Americans to believe the lies that Trump won–or that they shouldn’t trust those who might say otherwise.
And we can’t miss the role Christianity, or maybe this fake version of it, is playing.
I always thought it curious how much of January 6 seemed to be a Christian movement, in fact. Shouldn’t Christianity and storming the Capitol in a violent attempted coup be at odds with one another? And yet, we have learned that among the crowds were people carrying crosses, signs with Bible verses, and other religious paraphernalia. Worse, when the so-called “Q-Anon Shaman” took to the chamber floor, what was the first thing he did? He gathered the people around and lead them in a prayer—-a prayer that ended sounding like it was spoken from some lofty liberal seminary: “Thank you divine, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent creator God for filling this chamber with your white light and love, your white light of harmony.”
So, too, on Parler and Telegram, the entire Q-Anon movement played out as a religious movement, employing explicitly Christian apocryphal language to refer to themselves. So, of course, the worlds of fake Facebook Christians and dark internet conspiracy cults would easily intertwine: their goal isn’t about Christianity but about power, who has it, and who’s keeping it.
So, what do we do about it? Well, I think there are several things that have to happen, and I don’t know how realistic any of them are, but if we’re to have any hope of stopping this insurgency, we should have a few demands of our leaders, our institutions, our media–
- Facebook and other social media platforms have to be held accountable when they host content from an unknown foreign actor with an agenda other than what they claim. This is not a ‘free speech’ issue in so much as it’s a human rights and technology issue. If people want to post lies online, that’s one thing; algorithms designed to show us those lies first and foremost is wholly another.
- We should assume any content on social media that’s coming from an unknown poster is disinformation. Full stop. If you’re part of a Facebook group or page and you do not know who is behind the page, you should stop following that page, you should encourage your friends to stop following the page, and you should report any content you see that is suspicious. It’s time to restore our content consumption to known entities and reclaim gatekeeping ourselves. Better yet, I’d encourage everyone to delete Facebook, at the least, and consider deleting other social media apps as well.
- Christian leaders who aren’t concerned, speaking up about, or engaging with their congregations on disinformation are failing their communities. Do not attend their religious services, do not give them money, and do not entertain their theologies. At the very least, if they aren’t preaching constantly against violence as a solution, they can hardly even call themselves Christians. Worse, if their focus is some wishy-washy attempt to walk the middle road between congregants of different political viewpoints, compromise with hate only tarnishes those with good intentions. It’s as the Germans like to say, and as I’ve written before, “if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.” Think long and hard about your communities, whether online or in person, and leave behind the ones that are unhealthy for democracy.
- This issue with centrists is as true in our media landscape as it is in our churches, as journalists search for ways to write about all that’s happening and too often write false equivalencies just because they want to given equal attention to Republicans and Democrats, but the truth isn’t always two-sided. Editors have an obligation to end this practice before they help our society implode giving too much attention to the venial sins of Democrats and too little attention to the mortal sins of Republicans. Seriously consider how you consume your news and who you pay for your news, if you pay anyone.
- Tribalism is an issue, as we rush to our different ideological camps, but do not make the mistake of assuming every “tribe” is equal in its harmfulness toward our society. The word “tribe,” even risks both-sidesism and implies a left/right dichotomy, and while it’s true there are extremists on the left, as there are on the right, domestic terrorism is almost exclusively a right-wing problem. If your “tribe” is preaching non-violence, negotiation, empathy of others, then you’re the model for what others should be, for what our society should be. It’s okay to be that tribe.
- Though I’m guilty of it even in these bullet points, we should stop thinking so much in left/right terminology and start thinking more in terms of compassion and empathy, because the current “battle” is between those who have basic compassion and empathy and those who don’t. That said, until the Republican party splits, I’ll assume for now it’s quickly become “those who don’t,” but there are self-described “Republicans” who could not bring themselves to embrace Trumpism; it’s just that most of them have now become moderate Democrats or independents–who are also a problem, just a much kinder kind of problem. And those who haven’t, yet still support Republicans with their votes or their money, are now giving to the party of Trump. That ship sailed after Jan. 6.
- Ultimately, shunning is healthy depending on what you’re shunning. You do not compromise with far right extremists. You remind them firmly that their views are not tolerated in our society. If we don’t make it so that it’s again embarrassing to express bigotry, hate will only keep growing. We should not be afraid or weak in our effort to put an end to those viewpoints. It is deeply worrying how many of the January 6 terrorists are getting off with barely a slap on the wrist by our judicial system while there are people who have been imprisoned for years over selling or carrying marijuana. It is deeply worrying that there are members of Congress who are alleged criminals–whether those crimes are financial or related to their attempts to overthrow an elected government–and they have not been held accountable at all. So, when I use the word “shunning,” I very simply mean “accountability.” We need much, much more of that at all levels of our society.
In doing research for this little writing, I tried to access several of the top 19 Christian Facebook groups, and it appears as though Facebook has removed most of them. However, finding Christian pages with no clear author was extremely easy. The truth is, the folks in Kosovo and Macedonia–and certainly the Russians behind the troll farms–are not going away anytime soon, and there are going to be other countries that do the same nefarious thing. Our only hope is to learn to recognize our own mediascape, to push back against what we see, and to hold others accountable.
We’re in trouble if we don’t.
You know what you call an unsuccessful coup? “Practice.” If we don’t hold these people accountable for their crimes now, they’ll practice again–and eventually succeed.