“CJ Umbersen,” this one’s for you.
For you, too, “Daniel Chrisatopher.”
I don’t relish acknowledging that I’ve been played. But it seems the case and I hope it will serve as a cautionary tale.
Let’s dial the clock back to 2016. I seem to remember a rather heated, high-intensity presidential race. Anyone else recall that?
Early that year, I acquired a new Facebook “friend” by the name of CJ Umbersen. While I keep a second Facebook account for real friends with whom to share family photos and personal news, this was on my main account with several thousand “friends” owing to my media profile. It’s the one I’ve relied on for posting articles, offering my political and social commentary, and even delivering the occasional barb. It is a page for political insiders and interested participants from the left, right and all points in between. I have deliberately made the bar to entry low to non-existent.
Umbersen soon became a frequent presence there, offering acerbic comments and retorts to all kinds of political posts. At first, based on the name, I had no idea if this individual was male or female. (Yes, I still make note of that distinction. Consider me hopelessly retrograde.) The only Facebook photo provided was that of a cat, so no help there. But she used female pronouns in referring to herself so we’ll go with that.
The most ardent, rally-attending, MAGA-hat-wearing Trump partisan had nothing on this CJ Umbersen. She was always quick to defend and inflame. She incited more than one fiery exchange. If nothing else, it added to the entertainment.
In doing maybe 90 seconds of checking on her during some moment of boredom, it was clear that she traveled light. A Google search came up with plenty of hits — but all just to comments she had made online. Nothing else. And only that single cat photo.
When a few Facebook “friends” known to mix it up with Umbersen suggested that she might be a troll, I naively ignored them. When they hurled insults at her, in keeping with my general style I counseled civility and spoke up for her right to her viewpoint.
Touchingly, she even chimed in on some back-and-forth to offer that she and I were of the same religious faith.
Then the election finally arrived; Donald Trump was surprisingly triumphant; and CJ Umbersen disappeared into the abyss. Off of social media and gone without a trace.
More recently, the particulars changed but the intent seems to have been the same. Daniel Chrisatopher emerged out of the blue to become a regular presence on my Facebook page. His contributions were slightly less predictable than Umbersen’s, but equally cutting and meant to goad and agitate. It appears that Chrisatopher had hacked the Facebook identity of Daniel Christopher, a longtime “friend” on my page, but not someone I recall ever being an active presence.
Chrisatopher played the provocateur on my Facebook for a few months and then took his leave just as suddenly as he had appeared without so much as a polite goodbye.
In one sense, part of me is flattered that some hostile actor deemed my social media sufficiently consequential as to be worthy of exploiting.
But humility aside, I get it. My Facebook page comes from the political center and is a too-rare venue for smart, thoughtful people from all points of the political spectrum to engage in dialogue. To get out of their bubble, even momentarily, and read other viewpoints, even if minds are seldom changed. And it is based here in a state of increasing political importance and of a still-purplish hue.
If there was a broad and concerted effort to disrupt American political dialogue, pages such as mine would be logical targets. Further, if my page makes the target list, imagine the breadth and scope of that operation.
To be clear, I can’t prove that my experience had its origins in the Kremlin. That Umbersen and Chrisatopher were inventions of some nerdy Russian operative in some dank Moscow basement. But the circumstantial evidence is compelling. It would fit with a pattern of interference that we have come to know all too well. Though I remain open to contrary evidence or a more plausible explanation.
So what’s the takeaway? My first thought is that it is important to react but not over-react. I seriously doubt that these two trolls, no matter how prolific and malicious, changed a single vote among my social media followers. Those who point to Russian interference in the 2016 election are right to be wary and to insist that we tighten our digital systems. All of us, individually, should be a bit more suspicious and discerning. When an instigator appears out of nowhere, that is probably where they come from and where they belong — nowhere.
That said, those who contend that Russian interference was determinative are willfully missing the broader message of that 2016 contest. For some, this has become a convenient rationalization to explain away that outcome and avoid coming to grips with the shockwave.
Americans have caused plenty of political upheaval on our own. Being resourceful, we have proven internally quite capable of inflaming passions and stirring the pot to full boil. We have diminished our own political system and don’t require foreign intrusion to foment further disturbance and division.
Besides which, whether individually or collectively, no one likes being the sucker.
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. His weekly column appears every Wednesday in Colorado Politics. Reach him at EWS@EricSondermann.com; follow him at @EricSondermann