“Divide & conquer: A sample of 32,315 pro-Rittenhouse hashtag tweets, Nov 19-20, showed 29,609 with disabled geolocation. Of those, 17,701 were listed as “foreign”, but a deep scrub revealed most of those were in Russia, China, and the EU.” – Frank Figliuzzi

The fact-checking site Snopes looked into similar claims and found massive evidence of foreign-based social media accounts pretending to be Americans while cheerleading Rittenhouse and questioning the viability of America. This is how democracies can be destroyed from the outside, by planting seeds of hate and division that appear to come from inside and alter the sentiments of the nation.

Democracy can be a remarkably resilient form of governance, since it depends on the people it serves to maintain its own authority, credibility and ongoing support. As long as the people of a democracy remain engaged in and trust the democratic process, it remains viable.

Democracies fail, however, when the people cease to trust and support them. Usually this starts with small cracks, typically having to do with corruption within the democracy, which erode its claim to moral and political authority.

If those cracks — the bad actors who are abusing the system — are not removed or reprimanded and thus stop their corrupt behavior, the democracy goes to the next step in a downward spiral: an explosion of populism to serve as a corrective against the corruption.

Populism is when the people are essentially revolting against the elites who have taken government away from the people, and it shows up either as popular protest in the streets or through populist politicians who claim to represent the people against the corrupted democracy, or both.

This is exactly what we’ve been seeing over the past six years (and, arguably, since 2003 when the largest protests in the history of the world at the time poured into the streets to protest Bush’s and Cheney’s illegal invasion of Iraq).

Populist Bernie Sanders called out the corrupt establishment within his own party, as did populist Donald Trump. The very fact that people perceive a need for populist candidates is a sign they consider their government to have become corrupted. In both the Sanders and Trump cases, these populist leaders pointed to the sorts of corruption that work like a cancer within a democracy.

In America today, policy after policy is pursued over the objections of the people (Iraq War, tax cuts for the rich) as corrupt politicians refuse to pass or put into effect policies that have majority support among the populace – free education, affordable healthcare, rebuilt infrastructure, a strengthened social safety net.

Donald Trump was elected president on the populist platform of ending corruption in Washington DC (“Drain the swamp!”); stopping corporations from sending jobs overseas; providing better-than-Obamacare healthcare to all Americans at a “very cheap” price; raising taxes on the wealthy; and more tightly regulating our southern border.

Trump lied, of course, and did none of the above. Instead, he brought us the most corrupt administration in history.

Five of his cabinet members, for example, were referred to the Department of Justice by their own agencies’ Inspectors General for corruption. Unfortunately, Trump’s DOJ was just as corrupt as the cabinet officials; all of those referrals were ignored, and nobody was ever even investigated, much less prosecuted.

But Trump did not create this situation: he merely exploited it. The rot was already there and everybody knew it.

The reason corruption is so much more rampant in DC (and state capitols) — and foreign interference so much more effective — than either were just a few decades ago is because conservatives on the US Supreme Court legalized political bribery with a series of corrupt decisions, the most consequential and blatant being the 5-4 decision in Citizens United.

In that 2010 decision, they declared that billionaires and corporations could buy and control their very own politicians: pouring cash down the throats of those politicians was no longer considered bribery or political corruption but, instead, was merely “First Amendment-protected free speech.”

That money rightwing billionaires and corporations were stuffing into corrupt politicians’ pockets wasn’t money: it was “free speech.” Those corporations weren’t lifeless, soulless figments of the law: they were “persons” with constitutional rights to free speech. All of this made us ripe for the picking by foreign governments that see the very ongoing existence of American democracy as a threat to the legitimacy of their own oligarchies, as I laid out in The Hidden History of American Oligarchy.

Justice John Paul Stevens, in his Citizens United dissent, warned that the Supreme Court had not only thrown the door open to American billionaires and corporations corrupting our politicians and political process: they also rolled out the welcome mat to foreign governments.

“If taken seriously, our colleagues’ assumption that the identity of a speaker has no relevance to the Government’s ability to regulate political speech would lead to some remarkable conclusions. Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.”

“Tokyo Rose,” of course, was the famous woman who was constantly on the radio listened to by US solders in the Pacific theater during WWII, telling our people in uniform that the war was lost, Japan would win, and we should just go home. Her broadcasts were designed to destroy our sense of solidarity.

Today it’s not just foreign governments willing to harm us in the context of war that are tearing America apart. There are also numerous foreign corporations running, for example fossil fuel or pharma operations, who want to corruptly exploit us — and then lie to us about it — just to make more money.

Some climate change obstructions, for example, have been tracked back to state-owned oil operations in the Middle East, and many of the big pharma operations funding lies on the TV right now are based overseas. All of this adds to Americans’ certainty that our system is corrupt, making us more vulnerable to foreign trolls who work to turn us against each other.

“More pertinently,” Stevens added in the next sentence, “it would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans…”

And, sure enough, this generation’s version of Tokyo Rose has installed herself — or millions of versions of herself — into the fabric of our social media, making it appear that support for white supremacy, violence, and the destruction of our democratic institutions is far broader in America than it actually is. Justice Stevens, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 99, looked into the future to this populist moment, emphasizing how destructive the Citizens United decision of his 5 conservative colleagues would be by corrupting American democracy:

“In addition to this immediate drowning out of noncorporate voices, there may be deleterious effects that follow soon thereafter. Corporate ‘domination’ of electioneering can generate the impression that corporations dominate our democracy.

“When citizens turn on their televisions and radios before an election and hear only corporate electioneering, they may lose faith in their capacity, as citizens, to influence public policy. A Government captured by corporate interests, they may come to believe, will be neither responsive to their needs nor willing to give their views a fair hearing.

“The predictable result is cynicism and disenchantment: an increased perception that large spenders ‘call the tune’ and a reduced ‘willingness of voters to take part in democratic governance.’

Even American politicians would become subservient to these corporate corrupters of our democracy, further fueling and driving the anger of citizens, Stevens said:

“To the extent that corporations are allowed to exert undue influence in electoral races, the speech of the eventual winners of those races may also be chilled. Politicians who fear that a certain corporation can make or break their reelection chances may be cowed into silence about that corporation.

“On a variety of levels, unregulated corporate electioneering might diminish the ability of citizens to ‘hold officials accountable to the people,’ and disserve the goal of a public debate that is ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.’”

Stevens was right, and perfectly described this moment. We have drug companies telling us on TV that if the American government — unique in the world in being forbidden from negotiating drug prices — were to do so, elderly cancer patients will start dropping like flies. In Arizona, they’re running ads telling people how wonderful one of that state’s US Senators is after she blocked drug price negotiations.

Similar ads on a variety of issues — from backing the fossil fuel industry to supporting for-profit companies working to privatize Medicare through the Medicare Advantage Scam — lionize Republicans and corporate-owned Democrats in every state in the union.

Americans are angry, disenchanted, and disheartened by the state of their country. If “democracy” means “the will of the people is put into law,” they’ll tell you, then we haven’t been a democracy for a while.

Particularly since Citizens United introduced today’s brave new era where politicians no longer need to consider their voters’ desires but can simply rely on billionaires and big corporations carpet bombing their districts with feelgood ads ever two, four, or six years.

And now, as a result, we have fake populists — foreign agents, pretending to be American citizens complaining about our politicians, promoting conspiracy theories, or cheerleading attacks on our government — overwhelming political dialogue on social media.

And to be clear. These foreign governments would be delighted if they could provoke a civil war in the United States or throw us into such chaos that a strongman autocrat would have an opening to rise up and seize control of America.

“See, we told you democracy was a flawed system,” they’d say. “Our system of [president-for-life, Communist Central Committee, Emirs, Kings, etc.] is really better and now that we’ve proven how bad democracy is we’re going to double down on crushing dissent in our country, too.”

In fact, this is exactly what the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee warned of in 2019, a warning that was ridiculed and ignored within the Trump administration.

“Russia is waging an information warfare campaign against the U.S. that didn’t start and didn’t end with the 2016 election,” said the Republican committee chairman, Sen. Richard Burr. “By flooding social media with false reports, conspiracy theories and trolls, and by exploiting existing divisions, Russia is trying to breed distrust of our democratic institutions and our fellow Americans.”

And now we’re learning that Russian interference, while substantial in 2016 in support of Donald Trump and reported extensively in the Mueller Report, is just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

Trolls from multiple countries are tearing our country apart with their dominance of social media; pro-Rittenhouse trolls were even coming from places like Belarus and The Philippines, according to Snopes.

We still don’t know who it was who, in June of last year, sent tens of thousands of small-town Americans into their streets with shovels, baseball bats and chainsaws to stop the “Antifa busses” filled with Black people that foreign trolls on Facebook groups said were coming that weekend and were paid for by George Soros.

As then-Senator Kamala Harris noted in 2019, speaking of that Senate Intelligence Committee report:

“I think of America as a family— and like any family, we have issues. We have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation that we need to confront. But someone came into our house and inflamed these tensions to turn us against each other. We can’t let that happen again.”

This is not complicated: if Netflix can figure out what country you are in and feed you country-specific and language-specific shows, then Facebook, Twitter and others can also easily identify foreign trolls.

If Congress wants American democracy to survive, it must both roll back Citizens United to end the corruption, as well as passing legislation to regulate Big Tech, forbidding them from allowing foreign governments to pretend to be Americans in our nation’s social media. No more Tokyo Roses.

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