Thursday, May 10, 2018

Russian Facebook Influence: Coming Down on Both Sides

In the Woody Allen movie “Bananas,” one scene has U.S. paratroopers flying down to intervene in the fictional Central American republic of San Marcos. The dialogue:
  • First Paratrooper: Which side are we on?
  • Second Paratrooper: The CIA is not taking any chances this time. Half of us are for, half of us against!
In spite of all the hysteria, and hyperventilating, this is the story of the much ballyhooed Russian “intervention” in U.S. politics.

From the Washington Post:
Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday released about 3,500 Facebook ads purchased by Russian agents around the 2016 presidential election on issues from immigration to gun control, a reminder of the complexity of the manipulation that Facebook is trying to contain ahead of the midterm elections.

The ads, from mid-2015 to mid-2017, illustrate the extent to which Kremlin-aligned forces sought to stoke social, cultural and political unrest on one of the Web’s most powerful platforms. With the help of Facebook’s targeting tools, they delivered their disinformation to narrow categories of users – from black or gay users to fans of Fox News.

In doing so, Russia’s online army reached at least 146 million people on Facebook and Instagram, its photo-sharing service, with ads and other posts. Sometimes, Russian trolls also tried to fuel rallies and protests, endeavoring at one point in 2016 to pit Beyoncé fans and critics against each other in New York City.
You read that right. The Russians were on both sides.
“They sought to harness Americans’ very real frustrations and anger over sensitive political matters in order to influence American thinking, voting and behavior,” [Adam] Schiff said in a statement. “The only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see first-hand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us.”

For its part, Facebook stressed in a statement: “This will never be a solved problem because we’re up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries. But we are making steady progress.”
Note the assumption that this is a terrible problem that needs to be “solved.” The highly partisan Democrat Adam Schiff (along with Facebook) are doing what liberals have long chided conservatives for doing: hyping the sinister, evil machinations of the Red Menace.
In total, ads purchased by agents tied to the Kremlin-backed IRA reached about 10 million U.S. users around the 2016 presidential election, according to Facebook’s own estimates. But the ads are only part of the story: They sought to hook American voters into clicking “Like” or following Russia-created Facebook profiles and pages, which published organic content, like status updates, videos and other posts, which would later appear in users’ News Feeds.
Yes, we know that the sinister Russians scored a major propaganda coup by getting their posts “liked” on Facebook. We can’t imagine the damage that Facebook “likes” will do our republic.

Click on image to enlarge
In many cases, the Kremlin-tied ads took multiple sides of the same issue. Accounts like United Muslims of America urged viewers in New York in March 2016 to “stop Islamophobia and the fear of Muslims.” That same account, days later, crafted an open letter in another ad that accused Clinton of failing to support Muslims before the election. And other accounts linked to the IRA sought to target Muslims: One ad highlighted by the House Intelligence Committee called President Barack Obama a “traitor” who had acted as a “pawn in the hands of Arabian Sheikhs.”

For two years, Russian agents proffered similar ads around issues like racism and causes like Black Lives Matter. They relied on Facebook features to target specific categories of users. An IRA-backed account on Instagram aimed a January 2016 ad about “white supremacy” specifically to those whose interests included HuffPost’s “black voices” section.

At times, Russian agents also sought to influence Facebook users’ offline activities: One ad from the IRA-aligned page Black Matters promoted a March 26, 2016, rally against “confederate heritage,” which had 161 people saying they would attend. Another by Heart of Texas urged viewers to “honor your ancestors” and join a rally for the state to secede – a post that had been shared 266 times before Facebook removed Russian-generated content.

On Instagram, one of the IRA’s ads in February 2016 sought to target people believed to be police officers, firefighters and military officers, urging them to appear at a protest of Beyoncé outside of NFL headquarters. At the same time, another account — targeting black users — directed viewers to a pro-Beyoncé protest at the same location. Neither effort appeared to gain any traction, according to data supplied by the social giant to Democratic lawmakers. But it offered one example of the extent to which Russian trolls sought to exploit both sides of major national debates – including football players who knelt during the national anthem to bring attention to issues of racism.

The documents released Thursday also reflect that Russian agents continued advertising on Facebook well after the presidential election. Until August 2017, Russian-aligned pages and profiles advertised their opposition to immigrants, targeting a range of users, including those who appear to like Fox News. They marketed a page called Born Liberal to likely supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the data show, an ad that had more than 49,000 impressions into 2017. Together, the ads affirmed the fears of some lawmakers, including Republicans, that Russian agents have continued to try to influence U.S. politics even after the 2016 election.

Conclusion

The notion that the Russians somehow elected Trump gets no support at all from these ads. It’s true that after Trump because the nominee, the weight of the ads supported Trump and opposed Hillary. This could not have been because the Russians thought Hillary could win.

If they thought that, their analysts should be brought to the U.S. and installed as pundits in every major news organization.

Rather, they wanted to weaken Hillary, whom they viewed as the certain winner.

They, of course, would have nothing to fear from Hillary, associated as she was with the feckless, passive foreign policy of Barack Obama. Trump, on the other hand, they would have viewed as a loose cannon. Who would know what he might do?

But the efforts of a handful of geeks in St. Petersburg were pretty trivial. What defeated Hillary was her own defects as a person and a candidate. And the polarization in American politics is all “Made in the U.S.A.” The Russians’ efforts were not even a drop in the bucket.

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