In a way, it was the perfect crime: using American-made social media tools to subvert American democracy.
Just prior to testifying before congressional committees last month, legal representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google — all headquartered in the Bay Area — revealed that an ongoing Russian-connected disinformation campaign that used their platforms to try to smear Hillary Clinton, increase support for Donald Trump and generally inflame tensions was significantly larger in scope (and presumably impact) than had been initially reported.
As many as 126 million Facebook users over the last two years may have viewed posts clandestinely produced and circulated by Russian operatives, the social media giant reported. Twitter, meanwhile, acknowledged it had identified 2,752 accounts controlled by Russians, and found that roughly 36,000 Russian bots had tweeted 1.4 million times in the run-up to the election. And Google said it had found more than 1,110 YouTube videos, amounting to about 43 hours of content, that were related to the Russian subversion efforts.
Russian operatives are also believed to have purchased more than $100,000 of targeted ads on the platforms.
In his Oct. 31 appearance before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch said Russian operatives aimed “to sow division and discord and to try to undermine the election.”
Testifying before a separate House Intelligence committee, Stretch added: “They were able to develop a significant following for a relatively small amount of money. It was undertaken by people I think who understand social media. These people were not amateurs.”
The messages were primarily posted from the social media accounts of fabricated individuals and organizations. Much of the content attacked Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, often promulgating wildly unfounded conspiracy theories.
But many of the made-up Russian posts, tweets and videos were simply efforts to stir up and further fuel deep-seated divisions among Americans on range of explosive political issues — including immigration, racial justice and crime — that had come to a head during the campaign. The ads targeted specific groups of people in strategic voting locations. Some received only limited visibility, other were viewed thousands of times.
For example, one ad placed in July 2016 by a made-up Facebook user called “Being Patriotic” showed a picture of Clinton’s face covered with a black X, and read: “Hillary Clinton is the co-author of Obama’s anti-police and anti-Constitutional propaganda.” Targeted at Trump supporters in New York, it urged them to attend an upcoming rally.
The ad has since been traced back to a Kremlin-backed group in St. Petersburg, Russia that paid Facebook for it in Russian rubles for the equivalent of about $250, according to data Facebook provided the House committee. As many as 15,255 Facebook users saw the ad in their news feed and 1,312 clicked on it.
One Russian-authored fake Facebook group called “Blacktivist” urged people to rise up and retaliate against police violence, espousing “an eye for an eye.” Another group, targeting white conservatives, insisted that Black Lives Matter activists should “be immediately shot.”
U.S. intelligence agencies have long known that Russia’s”influence campaign” attempted to undermine U.S. democracy and help Trump beat Clinton in the election. But not until these most recent disclosures was the sprawling extent of Russian social media infiltration fully understood.
As Scott Shane of the New York Times writes:
“The Russian information attack on the election did not stop with the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails or the fire hose of stories, true, false and in between, that battered Mrs. Clinton on Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik. Far less splashy, and far more difficult to trace, was Russia’s experimentation on Facebook and Twitter, the American companies that essentially invented the tools of social media and, in this case, did not stop them from being turned into engines of deception and propaganda.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif), a member of the Senate panel, gave the three social media companies a stern warning that they needed to be more vigilant at stopping illicit foreign use of their platforms — or Congress would be forced to get involved.
“You bear this responsibility. You created these platforms and now they are being misused,” she said. “You have to be the ones to do something about it or we will.”
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In January, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency concluded “with high confidence” that Mr. Putin had ordered an influence operation to damage Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and eventually aid Donald J. Trump’s.