Las Vegas and the Catalan referendum are fresh fodder for Julian Assange and other Internet demagogues

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

The rhetoric of division has always been with us. My tribe against yours; your group against his; our gang against theirs. Historically, tyrants and dictators have often sought to use divisive rhetoric for their own ends, attacking enemies or scapegoats in order to unite their followers, or frighten their opponents, or hold onto power. But nowadays, you don’t need a tribune, a throne or a podium to play that game. Anybody can do it.

More than that: Anybody can enter into anybody else’s national, regional or personal quarrel and seek to make it worse. All you need is a network of followers on Facebook or Twitter, either real or fake, and an understanding of how social media algorithms work.

Example 1: With the aim of dividing people, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, who had showed no prior interest in Spanish constitutional politics, suddenly threw himself into the Catalan referendum campaign. Beginning on Sept. 9, he began tweeting his demands for a referendum and his attacks on the Spanish government, rapidly becoming the most quoted international commentator on the subject on Twitter. Similar to the tactics used in the U.S. election, he was helped in this effort by Russian state media as well as a network of Internet trolls and automated bots, which spread his comments further. The Spanish-language edition of Sputnik, a Russian state news website, has mentioned and quoted Assange in headlines more often that it did either the Spanish prime minister or the president of the Catalan Assembly. The motives are clear enough: Anything that divides a European country is good for Russia.

Example 2: With the aim of dividing people, U.S. conspiracy theorists leaped into the Las Vegas story just as soon as it happened and began spreading false information. One of the first was an account that began promoting the idea that the killer was a 32-year-old Islamic convert. Far-right websites identified the killer incorrectly, and one described him as “a Democrat who liked Rachel Maddow, MoveOn.org, and associated with the anti-Trump army.” Yet another narrative sought to pin the killings on the “antifa,” or anti-fascist, movement. The promotion of these fake stories didn’t require a Russian bot network, or at least none that anybody has yet identified: Instead, the rumors briefly featured at the top of Google searches and Facebook feeds, which once again proved unable to distinguish conspiracy theories and rumors from well-sourced information. The motives of the conspiracy theorists aren’t clear at all, but might go like this: Anything that backs up an existing alt-right belief is good for the alt-right, even if it proves untrue.

As for Example 3: Take your pick. Whatever angers and divides Americans, Spaniards or Catalans — or Filipinos or Brazilians — someone is right now seeking a way to make it worse. And somewhere on the Internet, a network will be found to help.