The Dark City Casts a Long Shadow on Social Media

A year before The Matrix hit theaters, a little film called Dark City quietly launched. I’ll let Roger Ebert fill you in on the plot, if you are unfamiliar. [Interlude music plays.] Now that everyone is fully informed about this film, let’s proceed. There are some similarities between The Matrix and Dark City. Both involve false realities, the former created by intelligent machines and the latter created by aliens. Most of the humans are unaware of the false realities that they occupy. After careful consideration, I’ve found Dark City to be the better film to use as a framing device, due to the more plentiful parallels.  

In early October 2019, the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence released an 85-page report on Russia’s social media operations. Within those pages, it described an allegorical Dark City that has taken root within social media platforms. Most Americans are still woefully underinformed about these matters, through no fault of their own. My goal is to shine a light into the subterranean caverns of that Dark City, so that people might see it for what it truly is.

The Strangers in Dark City took possession of an assortment of human corpses, including that of a child, to blend in with humanity. Within online platforms, Russians have taken on the form of Americans, via empty social media husks that are easily dressed up as various types of Americans.

Every night, the Strangers would fill the minds of unsuspecting folks with false memories. Due to real-world constraints, the Russians have had to resort to continually filling our online spaces with a wide array of false information (disinformation), promoted and disseminated via their various impostor accounts.

When we see false information repeatedly, it has a tendency of sticking in our minds. The intensity of this tendency depends upon the person, naturally. This is referred to as the illusory-truth effect and it affects us all to varying degrees. The Russians’ exploitation of this effect via fictitious activity (fictivity, as I call it) is intentionally malicious and corrosive.

When users enter these social media spaces while unaware of the pervasiveness of these activities, they are plugging into an unreality. Generally, people are relatively adaptive, and we tend to adapt our thinking and often even our behavior to differing environments. Contrast human behavior in a dance club to our conduct in a company meeting. Odds are good that we won’t be fired for drunkenly dancing near other people in a club. But in a meeting, we think about and react to the same behavior completely differently.

Social media is a different environment and we mostly have adapted to that setting. Behavior that would get people fired at work or might result in a confrontation offline has become normalized, to a degree. A good example of this normalization would be how we tend to discuss trolling. Trolling is an influence operation being undertaken by one or more hostile actors, whether foreign or domestic. It is specifically intended to get an emotional reaction from the online audience, meaning that it seeks to influence the emotions of a targeted audience. Yet, it has been normalized, as though it is just the way things are online.

Rather than genuinely addressing this hostile activity, we’ve mostly acclimated to it. Because we did, this Dark City was able to gain entry into our online world, partly by using and further weaponizing this trolling behavior. Other notable cases that went unaddressed include the proliferation of imposters on dating websites and the ‘Gay Girl in Damascus’ debacle. These all should have been early warning signs. Instead, our adaptability to this changing online world masked the growing problem.

The Strangers have taken advantage of our blindness. Moreover, they’ve actively sought to further blind us, by targeting those who are working to inform people of their operations. They’ve continuously deployed content designed to undermine the plethora of public evidence against them. They’ve also targeted the various people who report on it.

As outlined on page 73 of another extensive study on these Strangers, they sought to undercut reporting on their activities by various means. Perhaps you have seen content pushing a message that ‘the US interferes in the affairs of other countries, so we have no reason to complain when it happens to us?’ You might even buy the argument, if you don’t think too hard about it. It plays right into the biases of some Americans who know about and disapprove of American interference in South and Central American countries.

It’s a compelling argument for someone like me, as I disagree with plenty of the interference operations that America has engaged in. This argument seeks to weaponize my bias and covertly turn it against me. This is one reason why this messaging works. Our biases interpret this messaging as relatively innocuous and we might even opt to argue in favor of it, if the messaging somewhat fits into our particular worldview.

With this simple message, they’ve dismissed Russian interference and redirected the argument back at America. Most users would easily determine the true intent if the accounts accurately displayed the identities of the operators. But since they pose as Americans and refer to themselves as though they are one of ‘us,’ the message often slips past our defenses. Then, by repetitively pushing this narrative, it works to prey upon the illusory-truth effect to influence people into believing and even potentially spreading their faulty argument.

Here’s where, at least for me, the argument falls flat on its face. In order to fully buy in, I would have to accept the implicit premise that I shouldn’t be concerned about interference in American elections. Just as other countries care about American interference in their affairs, so too do I care about Russian interference in my country. Fact of the matter is, I care about both. As such, I’m not going to wave the white flag in response to Russian active measures. To me, that would be profoundly unpatriotic.

The messaging discussed here is just one of a myriad that they deploy. There are some Progressives who would be swayed by this specific messaging. There are also some Libertarians who would find this messaging appealing, especially when relayed by accounts that are disguised as Libertarians. With a few alterations of the presentation and the presenter, it can be targeted at other groups without too much difficulty.

Another tactic to undermine discussion of Russian ops is via derision. Typically, they deploy gifs, memes, and other mocking content for this purpose. They reply to content that exposes them with messaging that often revolves around the theme of “Everyone who disagrees with me is a Russian bot.” I’ve seen this as a photoshopped book, and I’ve seen it in numerous other formats. They continue to create or promote variants, but the underlying message doesn’t change much. Recently, they’ve started replying with “Beep-boop-beep-beep-boop” as part of their message.

When we don’t know that these are Strangers working in tandem to suppress the truth of their Dark City, we might find it amusing and even promote the commentary. We might take it as just an edgy post and nothing more. But via widespread distribution of these efforts, repeated over time, they seek to undermine the evidence of their existence and the truth of how effective their influence operations have been. These Strangers have been pushing these narratives since 2016 and this tactic has been very influential, I’ve found. I’ve met numerous folks offline who downplay these operations. It doesn’t help that many people are biased against believing that they could be fooled, which exposes a weak spot that those influence ops target and exploit.

Hostile actors in our online world control a wide range of accounts that impersonate a variety of characters. They portray Trump supporters, Trump resistors, white people, POC, Muslims, Christians, QAnon supporters, Progressives, Liberals, Republicans, etc.

In accordance with the data in the aforementioned Senate report, these Strangers were among the first to promote the #Resist and #Impeach45 hashtags. When combined with their content and their disguises, this allowed these accounts to embed themselves within groups of people who justifiably oppose Trump. They used a similar trick via the #MAGA hashtag to embed themselves among Trump supporters during the 2016 campaign.

These disguises have allowed them to covertly entrench themselves among the many other unsuspecting Americans they imitate. They also accessed the data that Cambridge Analytica harvested from American Facebook users and that data provided various insights into Americans from all walks of life. Such data would allow them to more accurately copy us and give them even more information on how to psychologically manipulate us, just as Cambridge Analytica did. Unlike Cambridge Analytica’s disguised ads, this manipulation is even less noticeable. An ad is more obvious than an army of cleverly disguised impostors.

Within each targeted group, they’ve pushed certain sensitive buttons repetitively to get their audience emotional. By eliciting an emotional reaction and then presenting the audience with false information, this allowed them to exploit a psychological loophole based around how we store information we encounter during an emotional state.

We see that memory for non-emotional experiences is better if they are encountered after an emotional event,” observes Davachi.

Put more plainly, people’s brains are generally better at storing the information they encounter when they have entered a more emotional state of mind. Pushing propaganda in these moments enhances the ‘stickiness’ of the messaging.

When this tactic is combined with the illusory-truth effect via constant repetition, this is a powerful cocktail. Other ingredients are also mixed in. For example, they work to be the first to present information to the audience. As I’ve discussed previously, they game the trending list in response to current events. This puts their narratives at users’ fingertips. Since they pump out exponentially more content than the average user and operate around the clock, they can be first more often than not. By providing that first bit of information, they are using anchoring bias to their benefit. Considering that 55% of US adults reported they get their news from social media “sometimes” or “often,” this is an Everest-sized red flag.

In this way, they don’t even need to always create the emotional content. They can exploit breaking news by creating and promoting trends which relate to that breaking news. Their content is further tailored to their followers’ tastes and then filled with disinformation. If you believe in the deep state, the newest tragedy was perpetrated by the deep state. If you are a particular type of Progressive, this latest tragedy is linked to the nefarious “establishment.” And so on. The messaging doesn’t even need to make much sense. Being first, repeatedly pushing these narratives far and wide, and exploiting our emotional state is more important than making sense. This is the power of the firehose of falsehood.

As a result of tricking groups of people into following their accounts, they are afforded direct access to users’ Twitter feeds. The content they post, interact with, or promote shows up in their followers’ feeds. When they send a tweet or like/retweet other content, followers see it. Because they operate at much higher volumes than the average real user, it is far likelier that followers will see their content than a real user’s content.

They seek out followers via active recruitment. Their primary targets are verified users, because that gives them additional credibility and expands their reach. The bigger the verified account, the better. If they can get a retweet from an immensely popular user, that would be ideal. In effect, their message just got pushed through one of the biggest bullhorns available and then it likely would be retweeted by numerous other verified accounts. For example, every time Trump interacts with a fraudulent account, as he has done repeatedly, he is propagating their message and promoting their account, wittingly or unwittingly.

Many of the accounts I’ve looked at have hundreds of followers, at a minimum. Some have hundreds of thousands of followers (Note: some of those followers are also frauds). Did you know that if each account had 1,000 real American followers on average and there was no overlapping of followers between the accounts, they’d only need 68,000 fraudulent accounts to touch every single American Twitter user? The slightly good news is that there is plenty of overlap. The partly bad news is that Twitter removed 70 million fake accounts in May and June of 2018. Obviously, it is a good thing that they were removed. However, we must consider how long those accounts were active and how many of those were working to influence American users. If all 70 million were targeted at Americans, they would outnumber American Twitter users by 2 million accounts. Thankfully, it is incredibly unlikely that all were targeted at Americans.

However, I’ve been studying this issue for over two years and there are many more accounts that Twitter has yet to detect. Furthermore, based on the active accounts I continue to uncover, quite a few have been online for years. I’ve found pockets that date as far back as early 2008. Accounts like those have been operating for up to 11 years without being detected and removed by Twitter.

These Strangers operate via the principle of “keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer.” To these hostile actors, we are their enemies. By getting close to us via pretending to be friends, they’ve covertly positioned themselves so they can easily stick the knife in and give it a good twist. Disturbingly, they’ve been figuratively stabbing us repeatedly and most of us are oblivious to the fact that we are bleeding out. We aren’t very good at scrutinizing those who seem to belong in our group, due to intergroup bias. This is why I frequently observe real users call out fake accounts that are disguised as members of out-groups, yet they often fail to see the impostors whispering in their ear.

This microtargeting via impostor accounts is catfishing on anabolic steroids. The world we occupy online becomes more unreal by the day as these agents continue to multiply. Facebook reported earlier this year that around 5% of that platform’s active users are fraudulent. This works out to around 120,000,000 impostor accounts. With this vast quantity of frauds, anonymity has been turned into a weapon. This weapon is aiming at the heart of democracy.

Their primary agenda is the implementation of a mathematical operation. Take a society, divide it in two. Take those parts, divide them again. One major division is enough to grind a nation to a halt, depending on how far that division extends. Further divisive operations amplify this effect and create more fractures that must be fixed before we can get back to progressing as a nation.  

One such divisive operation they rely upon repeatedly is to stir the pot among multiple targeted groups at the same time. They’ll take breaking news and propagate opposing trends related to it. One trend will appeal to one group, while an opposing trend will target another group. Within the content which is promoting those trends, they’ll infuse additional divisive and confrontational rhetoric targeted at the other group. They’ll even puppeteer accounts from each group and have them engage in divisive public clashes.

Another tactic is to pump hand-picked conspiracies into the social media environments of the target audiences. The deep state conspiracy is one such tool. For those who might be unaware, this conspiracy is not of American origin. Long before it became a crutch for Trump’s defenders and then Trump himself, Vladimir Putin was using this conspiratorial phrase to describe the US government in 2009. This phrase has been pushed and amplified within groups of Trump supporters by these Russian fraudsters.

At the same time, other impostors have been pushing conspiracies about ‘the establishment’ and the DNC at Progressives. The DNC conspiracies have been built off disinformation regarding the data that was stolen from the DNC by Russian hackers. They are determined to get as much mileage as they can out of those hacks.

Perhaps you’ve heard people say that they don’t care about who stole the DNC files, they care about the contents. That’s how easily bias becomes a blindfold. That bias was my blindfold for a long time. It further tricked me into believing that documents were more incriminating than they really were. They were presented to me with additional messaging in various posts that alleged far more than could be backed up by the actual contents. You might say that this messaging was leading (or misleading) the witness. Only when I finally realized that I was being targeted with disinfo could I see the ‘evidence’ for what it really was.

Once the blindfold fell, I could see that an allegedly incriminating email that supposedly showed the DNC plotting was just an email from a donor. Then I could further use logic and realize that the DNC cannot control who sends them emails or what those emails say, just as I cannot control if someone were to email me a conspiratorial email about the DNC. Only an agreeable reply by me would serve as evidence against me. When formulating personal opinions, this kind of logical analysis is hard to do under the influence of bias.

It is not my intention to present myself as representative of other people’s experiences. This is my personal experience with these operations and the effects will vary for others. The first step to recovery from this influence is to admit I have a problem. I have a problem, America. Notably, even if I had never been online, I would have been indirectly affected by those around me who have been under the influence.

Our biases have prevented us from seeing how we’ve been affected. For example, did you know that in a study of bias blind spots, only 1 out of 661 people rated themselves as more biased than their peers? The findings reflect that most of us are blind to our own biases even though we can often detect other people’s biases. Furthermore, as Carey Morewedge put it:

“People seem to have no idea how biased they are. Whether a good decision-maker or a bad one, everyone thinks that they are less biased than their peers.”

These unseen biases each of us have are highly exploitable. These impostors count on those biases when they push easily debunkable conspiracies at us. They count on us to trust them because they have entered our in-group and as discussed earlier, we have an enormous blind spot for those in our in-group. And while we laugh at the plainly nonsensical conspiracies those in the out-groups are falling for, we don’t see that we aren’t so special. We think we are, but we aren’t.

Progressives might have a hard time seeing it, but “the establishment” is just a repackaging of the “deep state” conspiracy. These are intentionally vague conspiracies which afford them the flexibility to be used against various people or groups. That Progressive outlet which disagrees with your preferred anti-establishment outlet is really a covert member of “the establishment.” That candidate who has slight differences with your preferred candidate is “the establishment.” This is also how the “deep state” conspiracy works. That conspiracy has just been repackaged for a progressive audience.

The true intent of these conspiracies is to divide our country. Fueling distrust is fundamentally divisive. For instance, propagating messaging that Hillary Clinton, Pelosi, or Obama are scheming members of “the establishment” encourages Progressives to distrust that type of Democrat. It also affects some supporters of those types of Democrats who see that commentary. It is completely understandable that many find these conspiracies to be highly offensive. Over time, this develops into a growing fracture in the party. And wouldn’t it be just peachy if this fracture kept widening in the run-up to the 2020 elections? I’m sure the Strangers think so.

As this conspiracy widens that crack, so too does the deep state conspiracy widen the fissure between Trump supporters and everyone else, including conservatives who don’t adhere to this conspiracy. Worth mentioning again, pushing conspiracies is just one aspect of their tactics. The latest Senate release on Russian Active Measures covers much more. For instance, the impersonating and targeting of African Americans plays a key role in part of their operations. I’d urge anyone who wishes to learn more about the Dark City to read through that report.

I’d recommend paying close attention to just how many online platforms they’ve been targeting. While we often just hear about Facebook and Twitter, their efforts spread much further. They even went as far as creating phony websites as part of their cover and some of those sites were even used for planting fabricated stories for further dissemination. The widespread covert nature of these fraudulent activities (some of which has yet to be fully uncovered) are what makes this so much like Dark City, in my mind.

As Mueller testified to Congress, there are far more hostile actors copying Russia’s tactics and targeting Americans now. Furthermore, I have found that there are far more fraudulent accounts that have yet to be reported to Congress. I have devised several tactics to uncover a number of them and there are other computational systems that are tracking various other frauds.

Someone’s son or daughter is scrolling through social media right now and being influenced by these operations. Cleverly disguised poison is being dripped into their still-developing minds by impostors who seek to undermine our country. It is past time to take this seriously. I personally hope that the information in the Senate’s report gets plenty of coverage in the media. Because it seems to me that the best way to deal with these operations is to expose their tricks and reveal the illusion. The Dark City is a mirage, powered by hostile Strangers who wish for us to believe that the online world is representative of true public sentiment. It has not represented that in quite some time.

As a final note, which I’ve mentioned before, we surely could throw stones at those who fell for the tricks. However, that would be entirely counterproductive and would only result in more broken windows. Did throwing stones stop the spread of antivax or flat earth beliefs? The evidence doesn’t remotely suggest that to be the case. If memory serves, believers threw more proverbial rocks in response and became even more defensive of their beliefs.

I think a better use of our time would be to look inward and work on those biases so that they are not so easily exploited. I’m personally still examining my biases, because they have not just gone away. In light of all this, I have a favor to ask of readers. When spreading the word of these operations, do so with kindness and understanding. Additionally, conveying this information when in the middle of a disagreement doesn’t tend to do any good. It just seems to turn this information into a rock that must be defended against, rather than considered with an open mind. Every time I have attempted this, it backfired badly. Admittedly, I don’t have a good answer on how to directly relay this to a disagreeable party. Perhaps the best answer is to hope they stumble upon it on their own. But maybe not. If you have suggestions, you can reach me at