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Opinion Russia may have just spread disinformation on Facebook. Where’s Trump?

Mark Zuckerberg (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

If nothing else, you have to give the Russians credit for persistence. In the face of exposure and worldwide condemnation of their efforts to meddle in Western countries’ elections and discredit democracy, they just continue to do what they’ve been doing. Here’s the latest:

Facebook said Tuesday that it had discovered a sophisticated coordinated disinformation operation on its platform involving 32 false pages and profiles engaging in divisive messaging ahead of the U.S. midterm elections.
The social media company … couldn’t tie the activity to Russia, which interfered on its platform around the 2016 presidential election. But Facebook said the profiles shared a pattern of behavior with the previous Russian disinformation campaign, which was led by a group with Kremlin ties called the Internet Research Agency.
Facebook briefed congressional aides this week. A congressional aide said that there’s no evidence that political candidates were targeted in the new disinformation effort but that pages and accounts sought to spread politically divisive content around social issues.

This, of course, is only what Facebook has figured out. Who knows what else is going on that they haven’t been able to identify?

One of the things I find most interesting about this is that the Russians, assuming this is indeed them (of course it could be a 400-pound guy sitting on his bed in New Jersey, right Mr. President?), have a keen understanding of how backlash politics works. Last year, Facebook released a set of ads it determined had been bought by Russian operatives, and as The Post reported at the time, they “demonstrated in words and images a striking ability to mimic American political discourse at its most fractious.” We know now beyond any doubt that one of their key goals was to help Donald Trump get elected, but they understood that just saying “Vote Trump!” wasn’t enough to do it. You could accomplish that goal by feeding the resentments and divisions that were already fueling the Trump campaign.

Columnist Max Boot walks through the evidence he says shows Russian meddling pushed President Trump over the finish line in 2016. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)

Sometimes that meant doing things that looked anti-Trump on the surface, but which seemed designed to provoke the outrage of Trump’s supporters, such as confrontational messages supporting Black Lives Matter. That’s what seems to be at work in this effort as well, with pages calling President Trump a fascist and talking about colonialism. It isn’t that these aren’t perfectly legitimate things to discuss, but anyone who knows anything about American politics — and the Russians apparently do — understands that at the level of Facebook posts they’ll do as much to provokea backlash as they will to persuade. It makes perfect sense, when Trump’s entire 2016 campaign was built on backlash, against a black president and a changing America that Trump’s supporters want to change back.

This latest revelation, modest though it may seem in the grand scheme of things, may be yet more evidence that Russia continues to work to infiltrate and manipulate the 2018 election. In addition to using Facebook to exacerbate social divisions, it has allegedly targeted Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), and probably other politicians and candidates as well. While we don’t yet know if Russian operatives have targeted state voting systems for infiltration in the same way they did in 2016, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats recently said “the warning lights are blinking red” on all kinds of cyber-attacks aimed at our country.

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And as NBC reported last week, “there is no coherent Trump administration strategy to combat foreign election interference — and no single person or agency in charge.”

While it might be unfair to say that the Trump administration wants Russia to interfere in the 2018 elections, it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the president himself isn’t too concerned about it. You’ll notice that whenever he grudgingly reads a prepared statement saying that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, he immediately raises doubts by saying something like “Could be other people also. There’s a lot of people out there.” Whenever he does this, he sends a clear message to Vladimir Putin: I have to say I’m unhappy about this, but you just go right ahead and keep doing what you’re doing.

The great thing about platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is that they can be used to manipulate our elections at almost no cost and with only minimal effort. Hacking into state election systems is harder, but far from impossible. Which is why, unless our government imposes some real costs, there’s no reason to think Russia is going to stop trying.

Last week, Trump tweeted that “I’m very concerned that Russia will be fighting very hard to have an impact on the upcoming Election. Based on the fact that no President has been tougher on Russia than me, they will be pushing very hard for the Democrats. They definitely don’t want Trump!” It was surely greeted with laughter over at the Kremlin — and a signal to continue their work.