The release of two Senate-commissioned reports has sparked a new round of panic about Russia manipulating a vulnerable American public on social media. Headlines warn that Russian trolls have tried to suppress the African-American vote, promote Green Party candidate Jill Stein, recruit “assets,” and “sow discord” or “hack the 2016 election” via sex-toy ads and Pokémon Go. “The studies,” writes David Ignatius of The Washington Post, “describe a sophisticated, multilevel Russian effort to use every available tool of our open society to create resentment, mistrust and social disorder,” demonstrating that the Russians, “thanks to the Internet…seem to be perfecting these dark arts.” According to Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, “it looks increasingly as though” Russian disinformation “changed the direction of American history” in the narrowly decided 2016 election, when “Russian trolling easily could have made the difference.”
The reports, from the University of Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Research Project and the firm New Knowledge, do provide the most thorough look at Russian social-media activity to date. With an abundance of data, charts, graphs, and tables, coupled with extensive qualitative analysis, the authors scrutinize the output of the Internet Research Agency (IRA) the Russian clickbait firm indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in February 2018. On every significant metric, it is difficult to square the data with the dramatic conclusions that have been drawn.
• 2016 Election Content: The most glaring data point is how minimally Russian social-media activity pertained to the 2016 campaign. The New Knowledge report acknowledges that evaluating IRA content “purely based on whether it definitively swung the election is too narrow a focus,” as the “explicitly political content was a small percentage.” To be exact, just “11% of the total content” attributed to the IRA and 33 percent of user engagement with it “was related to the election.” The IRA’s posts “were minimally about the candidates,” with “roughly 6% of tweets, 18% of Instagram posts, and 7% of Facebook posts” having “mentioned Trump or Clinton by name.”
• Scale: The researchers claim that “the scale of [the Russian] operation was unprecedented,” but they base that conclusion on dubious figures. They repeat the widespread claim that Russian posts “reached 126 million people on Facebook,” which is in fact a spin on Facebook’s own guess. “Our best estimate,” Facebook’s Colin Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period” between 2015 and 2017. According to Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts showing up in Facebook’s News Feed amounted to “approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.”
• Spending: Also hurting the case that the Russians reached a large number of Americans is that they spent such a microscopic amount of money to do it. Oxford puts the IRA’s Facebook spending between 2015 and 2017 at just $73,711. As was previously known, about $46,000 was spent on Russian-linked Facebook ads before the 2016 election. That amounts to about 0.05 percent of the $81 million spent on Facebook ads by the Clinton and Trump campaigns combined. A recent disclosure by Google that Russian-linked accounts spent $4,700 on platforms in 2016 only underscores how minuscule that spending was. The researchers also claim that the IRA’s “manipulation of American political discourse had a budget that exceeded $25 million USD.” But that number is based on a widely repeated error that mistakes the IRA’s spending on US-related activities for its parent project’s overall global budget, including domestic social-media activity in Russia.
• Sophistication: Another reason to question the operation’s sophistication can be found by simply looking at its offerings. The IRA’s most shared pre-election Facebook post was a cartoon of a gun-wielding Yosemite Sam. Over on Instagram, the best-received image urged users to give it a “Like” if they believe in Jesus. The top IRA post on Facebook before the election to mention Hillary Clinton was a conspiratorial screed about voter fraud. It’s telling that those who are so certain Russian social-media posts affected the 2016 election never cite the posts that they think actually helped achieve that end. The actual content of those posts might explain why.
• Covert or Clickbait Operation? Far from exposing a sophisticated propaganda campaign, the reports provide more evidence that the Russians were actually engaging in clickbait capitalism: targeting unique demographics like African Americans or evangelicals in a bid to attract large audiences for commercial purposes. Reporters who have profiled the IRA have commonly described it as “a social media marketing campaign.” Mueller’s indictment of the IRA disclosed that it sold “promotions and advertisements” on its pages that generally sold in the $25-$50 range. “This strategy,” Oxford observes, “is not an invention for politics and foreign intrigue, it is consistent with techniques used in digital marketing.” New Knowledge notes that the IRA even sold merchandise that “perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue,” hawking goods such as T-shirts, “LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes.”
• “Asset Development”: Lest one wonder how promoting sex toys might factor into a sophisticated influence campaign, the New Knowledge report claims that exploiting “sexual behavior” was a key component of the IRA’s “expansive” “human asset recruitment strategy” in the United States. “Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability,” the report explains, “is a timeless espionage practice.” The first example of this timeless espionage practice is of an ad featuring Jesus consoling a dejected young man by telling him: “Struggling with the addiction to masturbation? Reach out to me and we will beat it together.” It is unknown if this particular tactic brought any assets into the fold. But New Knowledge reports that there was “some success with several of these human-activation attempts.” That is correct: The IRA’s online trolls apparently succeeded in sparking protests in 2016, like several in Florida where “it’s unclear if anyone attended”; “no people showed up to at least one,” and “ragtag groups” showed up at others, including one where video footage captured a crowd of eight people. The most successful effort appears to have been in Houston, where Russian trolls allegedly organized dueling rallies pitting a dozen white supremacists against several dozen counter-protesters outside an Islamic center.
Based on all of this data, we can draw this picture of Russian social-media activity: It was mostly unrelated to the 2016 election; microscopic in reach, engagement, and spending; and juvenile or absurd in its content. This leads to the inescapable conclusion, as the New Knowledge study acknowledges, that “the operation’s focus on elections was merely a small subset” of its activity. They qualify that “accurate” narrative by saying it “misses nuance and deserves more contextualization.” Alternatively, perhaps it deserves some minimal reflection that a juvenile social-media operation with such a small focus on elections is being widely portrayed as a seismic threat that may well have decided the 2016 contest.
Doing so leads us to conclusions that have nothing to do with Russian social-media activity, nor with the voters supposedly influenced by it. Take the widespread speculation that Russian social-media posts may have suppressed the black vote. That a Russian troll farm sought to deceive black audiences and other targeted demographics on social media is certainly contemptible. But in criticizing that effort there’s no reason to assume it was successful—and yet that’s exactly what the pundits did. “When you consider the narrow margins by which [Donald Trump] won [Michigan and Wisconsin], and poor minority turnout there, these Russian voter suppression efforts may have been decisive,” former Obama adviser David Axelrod commented. “Black voter turnout declined in 2016 for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election,” The New York Times conspicuously notes, “but it is impossible to determine whether that was the result of the Russian campaign.”
That it is even considered possible that the Russian campaign impacted the black vote displays a rather stunning paternalism and condescension. Would Axelrod, Times reporters, or any of the others floating a similar scenario accept a suggestion that their own votes might be susceptible to silly social-media posts mostly unrelated to the election? If not, what does that tell us about their attitudes toward the people that they presume could be so vulnerable?
Entertaining the possibility that Russian social-media posts impacted the election outcome requires more than just a contemptuous view of average voters. It also requires the abandonment of elementary standards of logic, probability, and arithmetic. We now have corroboration of this judgment from an unlikely source. Just days after the New Knowledge report was released, The New York Times reported that the company had carried out “a secret experiment” in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. According to an internal document, New Knowledge used “many of the [Russian] tactics now understood to have influenced the 2016 elections,” going so far as to stage an “elaborate ‘false flag’ operation” that promoted the idea that the Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was backed by Russian bots. The fallout from the operation has led Facebook to suspend the accounts of five people, including New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan.
The Times discloses that the project had a budget of $100,000, but adds that it “was likely too small to have a significant effect on the race.” A Democratic operative concurs, telling the Times that “it was impossible that a $100,000 operation had an impact.”
The Alabama Senate race cost $51 million. If it was impossible for a $100,000 New Knowledge operation to affect a 2017 state election, then how could a comparable—perhaps even less expensive—Russian operation possibly impact a $2.4 billion US presidential election in 2016?
On top of straining credulity, fixating on barely detectable and trivial social-media content also downplays myriad serious issues. As the journalist Ari Berman has tirelessly pointed out, the 2016 election was “the first presidential contest in 50 years without the full protections of the [Voting Rights Act],” one that was conducted amid “the greatest rollback of voting rights since the act was passed” in 1965. Rather than ruminating over whether they were duped by Russian clickbait, reporters who have actually spoken to black Midwest voters have found that political disillusionment amid stagnant wages, high inequality, and pervasive police brutality led many to stay home.
And that leads us to perhaps a key reason why elites in particular are so fixated on the purported threat of Russian meddling: It deflects attention from their own failures, and the failings of the system that grants them status as elites. During the campaign, corporate media outlets handed Donald Trump billions of dollars worth of air time because, in the words of the now ousted CBS exec Les Moonves: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS…. The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” Not wanting to interrupt the fun, these outlets have every incentive to breathlessly cover Russiagate and amplify comparisons of stolen Democratic Party e-mails and Russian social-media posts to Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Kristallnacht, and “cruise missiles.”
Having lost the presidential election to a reality-TV host, the Democratic Party leadership is arguably the most incentivized to capitalize on the Russia panic. They continue to oblige. Like clockwork, former Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook seized on the new Senate studies to warn that “Russian operatives will try to divide Democrats again in the 2020 primary, making activists unwitting accomplices.” By “unwitting accomplices,” Mook is presumably referring to the progressive Democrats who have protested the DNC leadership’s collusion with the Clinton campaign and bias against Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary. Mook is following a now familiar Democratic playbook: blaming Russia for the consequences of the party elite’s own actions. When an uproar arose over Trump campaign data firm Cambridge Analytica in early 2018, Hillary Clinton was quoted posing what she dubbed the “real question”: “How did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin, or Michigan, or Pennsylvania?”
In fact, the Russians spent a grand total of $3,102 in these three states, with the majority of that paltry sum not even during the general election but during the primaries, and the majority of the ads were not even about candidates but about social issues. The total number of times ads were targeted at Wisconsin (54), Michigan (36), Pennsylvania (25) combined is less than the 152 times that ads were targeted at the blue state of New York. Wisconsin and Michigan also happen to be two states that Clinton infamously, and perilously, avoided visiting in the campaign’s final months.
The utility of Russia-baiting goes far beyond absolving elites of responsibility for their own failures. Hacked documents have recently revealed that a UK-government charity has waged a global propaganda operation in the name of “countering Russian disinformation.” The project, known as the Integrity Initiative, is run by military intelligence officials with funding from the British Foreign Office and other government sources, including the US State Department and NATO. It works closely with “clusters” of sympathetic journalists and academics across the West, and has already been outed for waging a social-media campaign against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The group’s Twitter account promoted articles that painted Corbyn as a “useful idiot” in support of “the Kremlin cause”; criticized his communications director, Seumas Milne, for his alleged “work with the Kremlin agenda”; and said, “It’s time for the Corbyn left to confront its Putin problem.”
The Corbyn camp is far from the only progressive force to be targeted with this smear tactic. That it is revealed to be part of a Western government–backed operation is yet another reason to consider the fixation with Russian social-media activity in a new light. There is no indication that the disinformation spread by employees of a St. Petersburg troll farm has had a discernible impact on the US electorate. The barrage of claims to the contrary is but one element of an infinitely larger chorus from failed political elites, sketchy private firms, shadowy intelligence officials, and credulous media outlets that inculcates the Western public with fears of a Kremlin “sowing discord.” Given how divorced the prevailing alarm is from the actual facts—and the influence of those fueling it—we might ask ourselves whose disinformation is most worthy of concern.