In the age of internet rule, it follows that some social network account holders would gain enough notoriety to become enigmatic celebrities overnight with the power to shape public opinion. By now, Facebook and Twitter have become debate platforms and political battlegrounds; able to minimize distance, give everyone an opportunity for discussion, and, most importantly, let them find a way to spread messages and gain approval. It even happened during the election in America, where for some time, the U.S. federal prosecutor’s office has been carefully monitoring the “troll factories” that, according to investigations, were conscripted by the Kremlin to create an army of fake accounts and, in this way, manipulate the American electorate. And that is what led to the discovery that one of the most followed Twitter accounts during the U.S. presidential election was, in reality, a fake profile. The account in question belonged to “Jenna Abrams.”
Jenna Abrams’s profile appeared on Twitter for the first time in 2014. As The Daily Beast has reported, it was just an ordinary account at first. In its first months of activity, the profile’s posts pertained to gossip, videos of dogs playing the piano, and daily mainstream world news; seasoned to the limit with politically incorrect language meant to attack the so-called mainstream. In other words, nothing that would have suggested a long-term strategy or political ambition. However, as time went on, something started to change. Her posts started to take a critical position toward the American (sociopolitical) system.
The beginning of the Jenna Abrams boom came in 2016, with a post about racial segregation. It was an inappropriate post, absolutely offensive and devoid of any historical basis, but it got her so many shares and such notoriety that her followers increased exponentially; up to more than 70,000. From there came the rise in the online world of the “alt-right,” bound to become a hot topic of major national and international media outlets.* Jenna Abrams’s name and posts have been mentioned in Yahoo Sports, Sky News, Breitbart, The Washington Post, France24, HuffPost, The Telegraph, CNN, BBC, The Independent, The Times of India, BuzzFeed, The Daily Mail, The New York Times, Russia Today and Sputnik, among other publications. Not just that; her account also held “discussions,” always through Twitter with high-ranking politicians – chiefly the U.S. ambassador to Moscow – and was also fulminated against by prominent intellectuals in the Democratic community. In other words, from a girl with a “trending topic” account, Jenna Abrams was transformed, within a few months, into a true catalyst of controversy and fabricator of consensus so as to become an instant internet icon with an important role within Donald Trump’s electorate.
The U.S. House Intelligence Committee, which is investigating Russian influence during the presidential election, has declared that there is proof this account was created by the Internet Research Agency, an agency headquartered in St. Petersburg. Its purpose is to influence online debate, and hence, real debate, by infiltrating social networks and creating fake accounts. Clearly, America is not the only one in the agency’s crosshairs. Its target may be any territory of interest to the Russian government. And evidently, if the Russians are doing it, then probably any government is capable of doing it. And maybe someone will do it unbeknownst to anyone. This is the risk, the monumental risk, of 21st century democracy. The internet creates fantastic opportunities, although it is also a dangerous place where fake news proliferates, unchecked and unrestrained. Social media accounts or websites that, out of nowhere, create consensus, disputes, and influence public opinion are an everyday thing. And if democracy and freedom of opinion are to be protected, then it is equally true that it is becoming very difficult to determine where the transient and elusive borderline is between freedom of information and disinformation. This is a crucial topic for any political party or government. And it is wrong to make it an issue of Russia against the rest of the world, or of populism against the other parties. Jenna Abrams could merely be the opening of a Pandora’s box so unsettling that it lays bare one of democracy’s greatest unresolved dilemmas of our time: how to live with the internet.
*Editor’s note: The “alt-right” is an offshoot of conservatism mixing racism, white nationalism, anti-Semitism and populism; a name currently embraced by white supremacists and white nationalists to refer to themselves and their ideology, which emphasizes preserving and protecting the white race in the United States.