It started off as whispers but has now become pretty much accepted: Russian operatives did attempt to buy influence in the outcome of the US election last year by purchasing adverts on social media. Facebook confirmed this some time ago, but the full extent is only just becoming apparent.
Congress’ investigation into Russian interference in last year’s US election is picking up steam. Yesterday, lawyers from Facebook, Twitter and Google estimated that Russian disinformation had likely been seen by more than 150 million people – nearly half the population of the country. By contrast, just over 20 million people saw the evening news broadcasts on television, Nielsen reckons.
The curious thing, however, is that the Russian adverts rarely mentioned candidates or the election (though when they did, they favoured Trump), but usually sought to amplify sources of division on political issues, such as race, gun control, immigration and LGBT rights. The adverts, having served their purpose, have long since left Facebook, but yesterday Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, released a selection of sample adverts to the public. As you can see below, they’re not particularly partisan, choosing to pick any side that can sow division in society.
Here are some of the people adverts targeted:
Those fearful of Muslims
People hostile to immigration
Those who dislike Black Lives Matter
These are likely just the tip of the iceberg, but it gives you an idea of the tactics Russian operatives seem to have chosen: it’s sowing the seeds of division, rather than an actual endorsement of Trump. The reasoning for this is unclear: it might just be that a divided country in an ineffective country. It might be that given Trump’s campaign thrived on division, this was a simple way to help. Or it might just be that this was an easier way to operate freely on Facebook without getting noticed.
Politicians are having fun bashing Facebook
Whatever the methodology, it’s nice to see politicians where they’re most comfortable: moral grandstanding. Facebook, Google and Twitter went through the motions of having representatives ceremonially flogged by Congress yesterday. Here’s Republican senator John Kennedy of Louisiana aggressively pursuing Facebook’s general counsel:
And there’s the rub: tough words to internet giants cost nothing at all. Actually acting on them, and dealing with the electoral consequences is much, much tougher. As I’ve written before, politicians believe they’re just warming up for a big fight with technology firms, but the truth is they’ve already fought, and they lost – they just didn’t know it at the time. Facebook, Google and the like hold all the cards, and there’s very little elected politicians can do to reign them in, except appeal to companies’ better instincts, which feels like it has a natural ceiling in terms of effectiveness to me.
To be entirely fair, America has a far greater chance of success in this regard than Britain (especially in a post-Brexit world where we aren’t tied to 27 other countries) thanks to both its size and actually hosting the companies in question. But it requires persistent bipartisan cooperation across government in an era where friendship across the aisle is actively discouraged. Exactly the kind of divisiveness encouraged by the Russian Facebook advertising, appropriately enough.
Action will likely, therefore, continue to be slow. But just watch that rapidly change if Mark Zuckerberg does indeed decide to run for president in 2020.