A Comment Suspected of Being by a Russian Troll Farm and An Ethical Dilemma

How did a social media account of a small AM radio station in Annapolis, Md. become a suspected target of the Russian troll farm, known as the Internet Research Agency? When I first saw the comment on a video that I uploaded to WNAV’s YouTube channel, I knew something was off, but I didn’t know what to do about it. This wasn’t just any comment. This comment would cause an ethical dilemma for well over a year.

The video was getting more attention than most on our channel. I recorded it at the U.S. Naval Academy in October 2017. The late Senator John McCain was giving a speech and he was introduced by Senator John Warner. This was well after the 2016 election, but before the midterms of 2018. Clearly, the comment appeared to be Russian propaganda, but at that time, there had been no big federal indictment – that would come. The commenter stated they were Russian, their name was Russian and they were clearly pro-Putin. But deleting the comment? I had no way of knowing this wasn’t just one person from Russia or that there might have been a larger organization behind it. Free and open discussion is important. Transparency is important. Deleting comments when social media policies hadn’t caught up to this issue – that’s a problem. As a journalist and social media editor, I was stuck in a very uncomfortable position of not knowing what to do. A few months later, in February of 2018, the Justice Department indicted 13 Russian citizens behind the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. But even then, I still couldn’t bring myself to delete the comment because I couldn’t independently verify this was a Russian troll farm behind it, even though all language used in the comment pointed to that and I felt pretty confident it was. I needed YouTube to pull it. I could report it, I could hide the user, I could delete it, but for what? Spam? There wasn’t then and still isn’t a mechanism for reporting suspected disinformation or propaganda on any social media platform. This was on YouTube to do something about it.

In June of 2018, I was at the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association conference in Ocean City, Md. Speaking at the conference was Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association.  He took questions from the audience, I raised my hand and asked about concern of Russian disinformation on our social media – specifically the comment. A lot of suggestions were made, not just by Shelley, but others too, and mostly all went to reporting the comment. After the discussion was over, Steve McMillan, the Mid-Atlantic News Editor for the Associated Press, came over to me and said he’d like to help me find an answer. To his credit, he did try. Again, the problem was this needed to be YouTube’s call and they weren’t making it.

The only thing I could and did do was post a comment directly under the other comment, advising of the indictment and comments left on our social media platforms might be made by foreign entities attempting to interfere and influence, yadda, yadda.

WNAV is a small AM radio station. Why did this happen to us? It’s the content of the video – this was a speech that was newsworthy beyond just Annapolis. YouTube is a global platform and just like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it’s useful for conveying information to a large audience- even by the bad people of the world. And even in the comments.

Why am I writing this now? For one, I didn’t want to call attention to the comment itself, to give it any publicity – that’s why most of it is covered in screenshot above. In addition, I just read this opinion piece, which made me think of the video again – https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/03/29/when-it-comes-social-media-manipulation-were-our-own-worst-enemy/?utm_term=.5745661929ac. And finally, I think there are lessons to be learned from this.

Having thought of the video again, I decided to check it out. Good news – the comment is now finally gone. YouTube finally woke.

Social media editors and administrators for news organizations of every size need to pay attention to this issue, because it’s not going away. From small, local radio stations and newspapers to large national networks, our social media platforms are equally vulnerable. We need better reporting tools and language provided by the social media companies of the world. And we need to provide education to those monitoring social platforms for news organizations on how to handle issues involving the first amendment and suspected foreign propaganda peddling on our platforms.

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