Revelations that Russia used Facebook ads and events in 2016 underscores what little we know.
By Robert Schlesinger, Managing Editor for Opinion | Sept. 15, 2017, at 6:00 a.m.
The Russia scandal increasingly looks like a matryoshka doll in reverse. The Russian dolls famously each open to reveal a smaller version nestled inside; the scandal over our foreign adversary’s involvement in the 2016 election, however, seems to grow and add new layers on a regular basis.
The metastasizing scandal’s latest revelations demonstrate even deeper and more brazen Russian penetration of our political system than we had previously realized.
Layer upon layer, the scandal grows. During much of the general election period the focus was on the WikiLeaks hacked-email revelations; toward the end of the race and beyond a greater focus developed on fake news and how Russia had used social media to inject it into U.S. political discourse, sewing chaos and distrust.
Another line of attack whose scope has become clearer, if not its effects, is the widespread hacking attacks on state campaign systems. At least 21 states were targeted; was Russian penetration responsible for any Election Day voting system issues? The official answer is no but a recent New York Times investigation demonstrates that the more accurate assessment is: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. The truth is that little investigation has been conducted on whether voting irregularities in key states were related to Russian hacking; and despite this complacency, absence of evidence (especially when accompanied by an absence of investigation) is not evidence of absence.
New affirmative evidence of interference has surfaced recently in other areas, however. Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, announced last week that the social media company had identified roughly 3,000 ads (costing $100,000) which had come from roughly 470 affiliated “inauthentic accounts” and pages which were likely operated out of Russia. (And this figure did not include another 2,200 ads costing $50,000 which the company also found suspicious.) The ads ran between June 2015 and May 2017; pause for a moment and digest that fact: These Russian active measures weren’t a discreet operation focused on the 2016 election – running into May, they reflect an ongoing foreign effort to disrupt our political system. And CNN’s Dylan Byers reported Thursday that Facebook still doesn’t know if they found all the ads from bogus Russian accounts.
At one level the amounts of money we’re talking about seem to be a pittance in an election where more than $1 billion was spent on political advertising. But foreign interference in our elections is a problem regardless of scale. Moreover it’s important to keep in mind the bang-for-your-buck difference between advertising on a social platform like Facebook and broadcast ads on television. The $100,000 of Facebook advertising is “probably worth $10 million of TV advertising because of what you can do with that advertising,” Gordon Borell, who runs a firm which analyzes political advertising, told Talking Points Memo’s Sam Thielman last week. “You can take a very particular segment of the population and move them an inch this way or that way in a way you can’t do with a sort of mass media spray.”
Another way the raw dollar figures fail to reflect the Russian campaign’s reach: The ads themselves were often aimed at getting Facebook users to “like” political pages and groups which would then flood those users’ timelines with fake news and other propaganda, according to Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
It’s worth noting that, according to Facebook’s Stamos, the ads were focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum – touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” While the Russian effort was ultimately aimed at helping Donald Trump win, according to the U.S. intelligence community, he was a beneficiary of opportunity rather than an ideological affiliate. Globally, Russian efforts often “promote nationalist, far-left or far-right views that put pressure on the political center,” Jim Rutenberg wrote in The New York Times magazine this week; Vladimir Putin’s cyber shock-troops seek disruption of democratic systems and globalization and Trump happened to make a convenient tool in that effort.
And ads weren’t the only way Russians tried to use Facebook to interfere with our political system. Russian operatives also used the social media platform to try to organize several political protests in the United States, including ones in Idaho and Texas, according to reports this week from The Daily Beast and Business Insider. “This is the next step,” former FBI agent Clint Watts, who has closely tracked Russia’s influence operations, told The Daily Beast. “The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something.”
Russians attempting to organize protests on U.S. soil? We’ve come a long way from hacked Democratic National Committee emails.
And these new revelations only beget more questions. According to Facebook’s Stamos, “one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted,” meaning that they were only seen by Facebook users located in specific states or cities. The extent to which they were otherwise targeted – set to only appear to users who have liked guns rights groups or LGBTQ groups, for example – is less clear. But the fact of targeting raises the question of how Russians knew who to target. “How are the Russians smart enough to target in areas where the Democrats weren’t knowledgeable enough,” Warner asked on CNN over the summer. Did the Trump campaign, in other words, coordinate or otherwise inform Russian operatives where and who to target?
While this possibility cannot and should not be discounted, Trump critics should also be careful: It cannot be taken for granted either. Trump’s most likely path to victory – cracking the vaunted “blue wall” Democrats had built in the industrial Midwest – wasn’t a secret; it was simply seen as an extraordinary longshot. Add to that the proliferation of media outlets focused on political nuts and bolts – everything from Politico to FiveThirtyEight to the electoral maps omnipresent on cable news outlets in the election’s final weeks – and any competent researcher with access to Google could have gotten a pretty good idea of where and who to target to support Trump.
Another important question screaming for greater clarity has to do with what social media platforms like Facebook knew and when. The media giant refuses to release the ads to the public or even to congressional investigators (though it has reportedly turned them over to special prosecutor Robert Mueller), preposterously citing privacy concerns for accounts it has since shut down.
This isn’t just a story of foreign interference into U.S. elections; they’ve made efforts along those lines for decades. What’s changed is that the rise and power of social media have given foreign agents a previously unheard of ability to influence political discourse in this country. So a full accounting of Russia’s information warfare against the U.S. must necessarily include a thorough examination of the – presumably unwitting – role of companies like Facebook and Twitter in that attack. It’s not surprising, then that Bloomerg’s Chris Strohm reported Wednesday that Russia’s use of social media has become a “red-hot” focus on of Mueller’s investigation.
The biggest question remains, however: What else don’t we know? Trump, doing his best impression of, charitably, an unwitting tool of a foreign adversary, routinely dismisses the Russian attacks as “fake news.” In doing so he frames what should be a unifying national concern as another partisan spat. And while not nearly so culpable here, Trump critics need to be careful not to outpace the facts in too quickly indicting the president and his cronies.
For each new and startling revelation – Russian agents bought ads on Facebook! Russian agents used Facebook to organize U.S. rallies! – reminds us that we are still getting our arms around what Russia did and continues to do to disrupt our political systems. “We’re still at the tip of the iceberg,” Warner told MNSBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night.
He’s right. And what we still don’t know can hurt us.