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Opinion

Op-Ed: Beware of Russian bots under the bed

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A banner with the Twitter logo on the front of the New York Stock Exchange in 2013.
(Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty Images)

Russian bots are running the world. I can almost hear their strange and eerie chitterings in the night. Theirs is the hiss of the online locust.

They share so many traits with my mother. They do not sleep. They respond to their “trigger” topics faster than is humanly possible. They are unable to figure out how to download a photograph of themselves for a profile picture.

Oh, Mother. Oh, Mother Russia. How quickly you colonize the brain. Yesterday an e-mail I’d written bounced back to me, and my brain immediately computed: “Putin.”

I probably wouldn’t have been so rattled if, an hour earlier, my phone hadn’t auto-corrected “a” and “the” out of another e-mail: “Why don’t you try Apple store on Avenue of Stars?” Total Soviet speak.

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But seriously, have you noticed how, when you mention hamburgers on social media, you sometimes get a pop-up ad for ketchup, one of the two major ingredients in Russian dressing?

I’ve worried in the past that my phone might be bugged. At the end of a day, it’s always drained of power. And I once received a text not meant for me. Increasingly I seem to hear static on the other end of the line. It sounds like dark money.

You can hardly blame me for being suspicious. I mean, the 2016 election, anyone? Somebody was working overtime to persuade Americans that the election was rigged and that diversity was dangerous. That same Somebody bought a lot of ads on Facebook and Twitter and then broke in to the Democrats’ e-mail servers so they could make a delivery to Wikileaks. Twitter had to deactivate 3,000 accounts. That’s a lot of default eggs to crack.

Or what about the two opposing rallies in Houston that the Facebook trollskies organized for the same day in May 2016 — a “Stop Islamization of Texas” event and a “Save Islamic Knowledge” event? It was like the entire internet was screaming: “Let’s be schizophrenemies!”

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Then the eruption of Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano this year, the bot-propelled migrant caravan, the Yellow Vests protests in France. Yet more frenzy-whipping, yet more massaging of the narrative in an effort to sow chaos. The fringe hasn’t been this mainstream since Cher met Bob Mackie.

Do you want us to squirm, Vladimir? We are squirming, comrade. We shudder at the knowledge that with bots come human operatives. We know how this might play out. We’ve seen “The Americans”! How quickly a shadow league of insurgents can be mobilized for micro-bursts of violence and Emmy-caliber psychological nuance. With the right hairpiece, anything is possible.

We are all on high alert. These days I thoroughly inspect any black, windowless van I encounter to see if it has diplomatic plates. Every time I hear the word “seashell,” I think “secret meeting in the Seychelles.”

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Last Thursday, when I picked up my laundry at the laundromat, it seemed quiet — too quiet — in there. Then it dawned on me: Many of the letters in the word “laundromat” are also in the word “kompromat.” I cautiously handed the proprietor my ticket, but not before turning up her radio deafeningly loud so no one could hear me. Go phish, Mrs. Sex-as-Spycraft!

Yes, Russian bots, you’ve got me running. At work I scour every nook and crevasse I encounter for hidden thumb drives. Those long poles with a mirror at their end, for checking the undersides of vehicles for bombs? Yesterday I made one with a face powder compact and a hoe. I’ve used it to check the belly of every dog in my neighborhood. (Never try to wedge a surveillance device between the sidewalk and a dachshund.)

On the plus side, though, I’m a much more sophisticated citizen than I was three years ago. Item: Last night I saw a man on my street scratching his head. I didn’t think “psoriasis.” I thought “wig tape.”

Henry Alford is the author of a book about dancing, “And Then We Danced.” He writes for the New Yorker.

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