The more details that emerge about Russia’s “sophisticated” efforts to sway the November election in favor of President Donald Trump, the more ridiculous Sen. Mark Warner’s aggressive rhetoric sounds. But instead of fading away, upcoming testimony from Facebook, Twitter and maybe Google will likely keep the story on life support for the foreseeable future, especially now that Congress has succeeded in browbeating all three of the tech giants mentioned above to admit that Russian agents were buying advertising or otherwise disseminating targeted propaganda on their platforms.
In its latest piece exploring the innerworkings of the Russia-led Facebook campaign to “sow discord” in the American electorate, the New York Times makes a stunning revelation - though its implications are clearly lost on America’s paper of record.
Almost all of the content promoted by the Russia-backed Facebook groups was created by Americans, much of it by conservative news websites like the Conservative Tribune.
“A New York Times examination of hundreds of those posts shows that one of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.
In other words, the Russia groups did little more than amplify political messages that were already deafeningly broadcast by the grassroots movement that emerged to support President Donald Trump during his quest for the Republican nomination, and later, the presidency.
Given the small dollar amounts spent on these campaigns, it’s difficult to imagine that these pages had a measurable impact on public opinion. In fact, most of the original sources of content that was repurposed by the Russians garnered far more views on their own platforms.
Still, that hasn’t stopped some academics from implying that the impression on voters was much more impactful than the facts would suggest.
“This is cultural hacking,” said Jonathan Albright, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “They are using systems that were already set up by these platforms to increase engagement. They’re feeding outrage – and it’s easy to do, because outrage and emotion is how people share.”
As has been widely reported, groups that have been identified by Facebook as being clandestinely created by Russians reflected a range of political views. For example, pages that carried pro-Black Lives Matter messages, or content highlighting discrimination against the US’s Muslim population
One of those groups repurposed a video showing New Yorkers standing idly by while a man in traditional Muslim garb is harassed by an actor pretending to be a bully.
When the creator of the video found out it had been “ripped” by one of the Russia-backed pages, he asked that the video be removed – not because he disagreed with the framing of the page’s messaging, but because he believed the page was stealing his views.
Notably, that video – which appeared on the Russian Facebook page called “United Muslims of America” – received far fewer views than the creator’s original post.
“The video ends with Mr. Shah pointing out New York’s hypocrisy: The city claims to be a “melting pot,” but no one intervened while he was getting harassed. Mr. Shah’s original video, posted on YouTube in June 2016, was a viral hit that attracted more than three million views. A week after he posted, United Muslims of America copied the video to its group page without the original YouTube link, a process known as ripping. There, Mr. Shah’s video became the Russian page’s most popular post, earning more than 150,00 interactions.
Lower in the story, the Times shared an anecdote about a conservative blogger who inadvertently shared a “fake news” story published by one of the Russian pages. When confronted by the Times, the blogger scoffed at the paper’s suggestion that he played a role in a nefarious propaganda campaign.
“I usually publish an article several times a week, to keep driving the narrative,” Mr. Swanson said in an interview. He was not bothered, he said, by becoming an unwitting cog in the Russian propaganda machine. “You know we do the same damn thing over there,” Mr. Swanson said. “What do you think – we’re saints?”
In other words, many Americans are seeing right through Congress and the mainstream media’s characterization of “Russian interference” as a sophisticated propaganda campaign targeted at swing state voters.
Given the fact that the overhyped Russia ads are essentially crudely crafted memes that had already been widely disseminated on social media, we wonder if Sen. Mark Warner and Rep Adam Schiff still plan to release the ads to the public.