OPED: We need civil discourse, not inflamed discord

Jon Clark
Citizens' Climate Lobby

Just before the November elections, on May 16, 2016, about a dozen protesters showed up outside the Islamic Da'wah Center in downtown Houston, Texas. The Houston Chronicle reported on the protest and the Facebook page which organized it: “A group calling themselves Heart of Texas called for the rally to protest what they consider "Islamization" of Texas — sparked in part by the recent opening of a privately funded library inside the downtown center.

The group had also encouraged followers to bring legal firearms.” Although the Heart of Texas group never showed, about 10 people bearing flags of the United States, Texas and the Confederacy were there. "This is America. We have the right to speak out and protest," said Ken Reed, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase "White Lives Matter." "We feel Texas, our great state and the United States is being threatened by the influx of Islam."

Across the street about 60 counter-protesters, organized by a Facebook account called United Muslims of America, attended a "Save Islamic Knowledge" rally. Both protests were organized for the same day, same time and same location. What Americans did not know at the time, is that both the anti-Islam and pro-Islam rally were promoted using separate Facebook pages operated from a so-called troll farm in St. Petersburg, Russia. Thankfully, Houston police kept the peace at the protests.

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Recently, the Senate Intelligence Committee held an open hearing with lawyers from Facebook, Google and Twitter. Committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr spoke at the hearing about the protest and the counter-protest saying: "What neither side could have known was that Russian trolls were encouraging both sides to battle in the streets and create division between real Americans."

The New York Times reported: “The Russian attempt at long-distance choreography was playing out in many cities across the United States. Facebook has disclosed that about 130 rallies were promoted by 13 of the Russian pages, which reached 126 million Americans with provocative content on race, guns, immigration and other volatile issues.”

Russian trolls also stoked the fires of divisiveness among Americans on climate change. The House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology recently released a report entitled “Russian Attempts to Influence U.S. Domestic Energy Markets by Exploiting Social Media.”  In the report they describe the thousands of posts made in social media (i.e. Facebook and Twitter) by Russian trolls promoting viewpoints spanning the entire political spectrum attempting to “divide Americans.”

“Numerous posts from a Russian account named Heart of Texas (remember them?)  advocated for pro-drilling and oil positions. The text associated with the post stated: ‘I don't care what ecologists say. Texas is the top oil producing state, and I'm proud of it! Let's douse the Yankees with it and then just throw a burning match’…Additionally, several posts took positions against climate change policies, supporting the notion that scientists ‘have no proof of substantial temperature fluctuations in recent history.’”

More:Russians charged with meddling in 2016 presidential race

Additionally, these posts frame the conservative viewpoint regarding climate change as a “liberal hoax.” Other posts promoting the “liberal” perspective promoted renewable energy, highlighted the amount of fossil fuel company profits were made along with subsidies received, and called into question the safety of fracking.

The report released by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology stated: “By posting content that supports positions held by both liberals and conservatives alike, the Russians used social media to instigate and inflame discord in the United States.  Russian social media manipulators intentionally injected foreign propaganda into American political discourse. 

These Russian agents are only interested in creating discord in America while hiding behind an anonymous and misleading social media pseudonym, as demonstrated by the highly divisive, often contradictory posts provided in this report.” The common denominators I noticed in all these posts was never provide solutions, always attack the “other side”, and divide Americans by flooding our social media with divisive content. 

America and the world have real problems to solve. Climate change is a threat to us all.  The last three years have been the hottest years ever experienced, 17 of the 18 hottest years recorded since 1850 have occurred since 2000. Scientists overwhelmingly agree our planet is warming due to greenhouse gases released by humans burning fossil fuels. 

We need solutions, not division. We need civil discourse, not inflamed discord. We need cooler heads, not a hotter planet. This is where the House of Representatives bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus comes in. The Caucus currently has 72 members and continues to grow. Membership is kept equal between Republicans and Democrats, and they are already at work introducing bills to bring us closer to solving climate change and help bring us together as a nation.

I encourage Rep. Scott Perry and every Democratic candidate running for his seat in the 2018 election to pledge to join this caucus and work with others across the aisle to counter those who seek to divide Americans on this issue.

— Jon Clark is Mid-Atlantic regional co-coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby and lives in Lancaster.