Russia, memes and you

When your Tumblr is hacked by Russian propagandists

In late March, 84 Tumblr accounts were terminated after their association with the Internet Research Agency (IRA) was revealed. The name is pretty vague, but it might sound familiar.

The IRA is a Russian organisation linked to the Kremlin, and has been identified as a driving force behind much of the fake news and anti-Hillary Clinton content spread online during the 2016 American election. Specifics of the interference have come out quite recently in Robert Mueller’s indictment of these actions.

While I was following the shape of the story, I didn’t know the specifics. Maybe I thought I already understood enough about the situation. Maybe I was too engrossed in scandals closer to home (Joyce’s maybe-baby, cricket balls in unusual places—what next?). Whatever the reason, it turned out that I was unaware enough to not realise I was personally involved.

Like other social media platforms, Tumblr belatedly looked into propaganda operations it played host to. Upon terminating certain blogs, it sent out an email to anyone who had interacted with them. I was a recipient of one of these emails.

And I was more than a little surprised. In fact, I was kind of annoyed when I found out, actually, because when you discover you’ve been fed Russian propaganda, you want it to be something memorable and maybe a little illicit.

If you go through the ‘IRA’ and related tags on Tumblr, you can find many, many posts from users who were confused after receiving the email. There are posts from users who aren’t American and who don’t blog about politics—users like me—scrambling to work out where they went wrong. And when I did discover where I went ‘wrong’, it turned out that the Russian post I had interacted with was an innocuous, relatable meme about anxiety.

This brings up an important question about what propaganda actually looks like.

When we think of propaganda, we might think of wartime posters: Fight in this war! Vote for this leader! Support this party! The message is clear, the bias identifiable. We might think also of films made during the same periods: the Russian Battleship Potemkin or Britain’s The Lion Has Wings. Recognising these movies as propaganda is important because it reminds us that propaganda and entertainment have, historically, gone hand in hand.

Only 31% of Australians trust the media, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer, an international study in its eighteenth year. The head of Edelman Australia, Steve Spurr, has attributed this distrust to the rise of fake news. So people are becoming wary of the news they consume online—but what of the pages they follow for entertainment and opinion?

A number of the blogs shut down on Tumblr had URLs like ‘blacknproud’ and ‘blacktolive’. Users were suspicious of how these blogs, which seemed to post primarily left-leaning, African American-centred content, were the ones deleted.

But it makes sense. Propaganda is going to be most effective when it doesn’t look like propaganda: misinformation alongside relatable content is going to be better received than a random media user yelling that Hillary Clinton is the devil.

We don’t trust our news and we don’t trust our politics—should we be wary of our memes too?