Most people are aware of the Kremlin’s attempts to influence voters in the US and Europe, but the fact that one of the avenues for this influence was mindfulness may come as a surprise.
Among Russia’s many fake social media accounts was a Facebook page called “Mindful Being,” which cleverly mixed legitimate spiritual teachings with material intended to make us more receptive to authoritarianism. Russian operatives deciding that mindfulness, a way to develop greater awareness, could be fertile ground for a propaganda campaign is sobering. However, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of propaganda and how easy it is for us to be taken in by it. In this way, fact-checking can become a spiritual practice in its own right.
It helps to first understand what we are up against. For years, the St. Petersburg–based Internet Research Agency (IRA) has been working on behalf of the Russian government to manipulate voting in Western democracies. They promoted Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency, had a hand in Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and—so far with less dramatic success—have been supporting extremist political movements across Europe.
In July 2018, Facebook announced that it had removed 32 deceptive pages and accounts, including Mindful Being, which had been set up to influence the outcome of the 2018 US midterm elections. In the two short months between their creation and their deletion, these fake accounts amassed more than 290,000 followers, created 9,500 posts, and organized 30 events since 2017, the largest of which had “approximately 4,700 accounts interested in attending,” according to a Facebook press release. Although the creators of these pages took pains to cover their tracks, they momentarily slipped up, and for a total of seven minutes one account had a known IRA administrator. Oops!
It might seem odd, not to say ironic, that the IRA should have attempted to influence political opinion through a page promoting mindfulness. Yet if we look at what Russia was doing on the Mindful Being page I think we can learn important lessons about political manipulation, and even about ourselves.
Mindful Being was subtle. Most of the posts were completely innocuous; many fake Russian accounts start by building up a large audience with the aim of later attempting to influence them politically. Even the Mindful Being propaganda posts that Facebook has revealed could easily have been missed. But that, I think, was the point. Propaganda works best when you don’t realize that it’s propaganda. Also, we should bear in mind that the pages were deleted long before the midterms, and had they continued to operate, presumably the level of manipulation would have increased.
Of the three manipulative posts that Facebook released, one had a picture of a medicine bottle labeled “Mainstream News Media” accompanied by the message “Harmful If Swallowed.” Another touted the message, “Prescription medicine is not healthcare: food is healthcare.” The third had a mystical message: “We must unlearn what we have learned because a conditioned mind cannot comprehend the infinite.” It’s true of course that the mainstream media are sometimes biased, that medical experts are not perfect, and that in order to gain wisdom we all have to do some unlearning. If propaganda is to have an effect without being obvious, it should contain at least a grain of truth—something that resonates with us. But it must also have a political effect.
So what was the political purpose of these posts? Essentially, the Russian government wants to strengthen its geopolitical influence by undermining the military and economic alliances that oppose it, including NATO, NAFTA, and the European Union. One way to do this is to support nationalist leaders who promote isolationist policies. As harmless as each of the messages above may seem in isolation, they would appear to be part of this strategy.
One way to help the election of isolationist leaders is to fray our shared sense of reality by making us distrust sources of expertise: scientists, economists, the medical establishment, the media, and government. Adrift in a sea of competing truth-claims, and not knowing who or what to believe, we become isolated, confused, and anxious. We long for the firm land of belonging, clarity, and security. Then along comes the populist politician, who despite having helped create our sense of uncertainty, now claims that he alone dares to tell the truth.
Now we can rediscover a sense of belonging as part of his movement—standing together against the “haters.” And even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to support the populist leader, his narratives of how corrupt and dishonest his opponents are may render us apathetic. “Aren’t the mainstream parties just the same anyway?” we may think. And by marginalizing ourselves, we make it easier for the populist to get elected.
This appears to have been the strategy of Mindful Being: draw people in by offering inspiring spiritual messages, and then create doubt. “Doubt the media. Doubt scientists. Doubt even yourself.”
It is not an accident that this kind of all-encompassing doubt is one of the five hindrances that impede Buddhist practice.
The phenomenon of viral social media posts that promote misinformation is of particular interest to me. I observe it in action all the time in a less politically charged area; I maintain a blog that collects and documents Fake Buddha Quotes, and have recently written a book on the same topic. What I’ve observed is that on the whole we’re not very good at verifying information. I often hear from people who have tried to verify a quote. Often they search for it on the Internet, and after finding it attributed to the Buddha on several quotes sites or blogs, they conclude that the attribution must be correct. After all, if lots of people say the same thing, surely it must be true. On the other hand, sometimes they see one attribution that differs from the rest and assume that this must be the lone truth-teller. Few people think to—or even know how to—look for a primary source, which in the case of the Buddha would be the scriptures. I’ve noticed also that a lot of people have trouble assessing the likely reliability of a source: a user-contributed quote on Goodreads, for example, versus a quote (plus footnote) in a more academic work. And many Buddhists lack a gut sense of what the Buddhist scriptures typically sound like.
For the most part, we see, we like, we share. The process is almost instinctual, with little thought or mindfulness involved. (Lest it seem that I’m moralizing, I confess that I’ve fallen prey to this tendency myself.)
Sharing political information on social media is similarly automatic, although usually more emotion is involved. We see a story that is inflammatory and fits what we already want to believe; often this is something critical of our political opponent or their supporters. Emotionally provoked, our limbic system goes into overdrive and our critical thinking is inhibited. As a result we unthinkingly hit “share”—perhaps disseminating distortions or even lies.
Verifying information, by contrast, can be a spiritual practice in which we learn to understand and regulate our own mind. Emotionally provocative news stories, memes, and quotes give us an opportunity to practice being mindful of our feelings, thoughts, and impulses. Mindfulness can help us to pause before we rashly share information that may not be true. This gives us a chance to reflect: Does this story sound too good to be true? Is the source authoritative and objective, or is it perhaps biased and partisan? Since scammers have been known to create websites that look similar to those of newspapers and TV channels, have I verified that the source is legitimate? If the story in question is as important as it appears, is it also found on major news outlets, as one might expect? What will I find if I enter keywords or phrases from the story along with the words “fake” or “hoax”? Is the story on snopes.com or other fact-checking sites? These questions are all ways of engaging the neocortex, which is the most distinctively human part of our brains. The spiritual practice of fact-checking makes us not just more mindful, but more human.
The difference between the kind of inquiry I’ve just advocated and the nihilistic doubt promoted by the Kremlin is that the former helps us find clarity while the latter leads to confusion. It’s the difference between doing a reality check and checking out of reality. When the Buddha discussed in the Kalama Sutta about how to sort out competing claims, he didn’t advocate rejecting all authority or trusting the one person who’s at odds with other authorities. Instead he said that we should learn for ourselves which things are “unskillful, blameworthy, criticized by sensible people, and when you undertake them, they lead to harm and suffering.” Having done this we should abandon them.
I’ve said that the IRA used social media accounts as tools for political ends, but in the end it is we who are their tools. Our own minds, our own un-mindfulness, are being weaponized against us. But this is only the case if we remain unaware of our own reactivity and naive to the fact that there are people attempting to manipulate us. While there must surely be political and technological components to tackling the problem of false information, each of us has a responsibility to work at becoming more responsible and mindful—not just in the way we use social media, but in the way we use our own minds.
In the case of Fake Buddha Quotes the stakes are not particularly high; we risk creating a certain amount of confusion about what the Buddha taught, but the scriptures will remain. If we slide into authoritarianism, however, democracy is lost entirely, and historical precedent shows us how badly things can go when that happens.