Last week, Facebook’s disclosure that an estimated 10 million people in the United States saw political ads bought by accounts connected to the Russian government rekindled the conversation about Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. This week, similar statements were made by Google, YouTube, Twitter, and Microsoft (Reuters).
Russia’s co-optation of social media tools caught technologists and policymakers offguard. Financial Times asks “Is Facebook spinning out of control over Russian revelations?” and ponders whether the platform should be regulated. The authors of the Washington Post’s article “Russia took a page from corporate America by using Facebook tool to ID and influence voters,” point out that the Custom Audience tool is routinely used by businesses and corporations. Buzzfeed reminded us that both parties work extensively with social media and “firms such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter now play a much more active role in electoral politics than has been widely acknowledged.” Russian interference brought into spotlight the fact that social media companies and search engines — unlike television, print and radio — are not bound by law to disclose who purchases their ads and are thus malleable to foreign influence.
While policymakers are grappling with creating legal remedies (like asking RT to register as a foreign agent or banning it altogether, as Estonia did), several initiatives have sprung up to deal with Russian disinformation attacks, mostly by debunking false claims as they come out. The EU-funded EU vs Disinformation and the Ukraine-bas ed StopFake are the most notable.
Bloomberg’s Leonid Bershidsky, however, claims that reactionary debunking is an exercise in futility. Instead, he suggests readers trace sources of the information and evaluate their trustworthiness, while being aware of the players’ agendas. In a similar vein, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul insists that information about Russian state propaganda — not censorship of the content— must be provided to the general public. Kennan Institute’s Nina Jankowicz points out that Russian propaganda outlets often exploit existing discord, and recommends that the “United States should work to systematically rebuild analytical skills across the American population and invest in the media to ensure that it is driven by truth, not clicks.”
So did the ads influence the election result? Meduza’s Kevin Rothrock dismissed the news, highlighting that more than half of the ads were shown after the elections, and 25% were never seen by anyone. Sean Guillory mocked The New York Times’ supposition that a Russia-linked animal lovers page was created “to build a large following before introducing political content.” Commenters on his page also deemed it to be “parody or paranoia” – even after two respected Russian journalists, Alexey Kovalev and Vasiliy Gatov, explained in the same thread that this tactic is entirely plausible and is already employed by the likes of RT and Sputnik.
Leonid Bershidsky challenged Michael McFaul’s statement that “altogether, these Russian actions probably still only produced marginal effects, but this election was won in the margins” – tweeting “for this to make sense, one has to be sure “marginal effect” occurred in the exact states where Trump won the critical votes.” To which McFaul retorted “why is ‘impact’ so important for you? Isn’t the fact of attempted influence not enough? ‘Attempted theft’ is a crime (in U.S. at least)?”
Among the heated discussions, The Atlantic Council’s Ben Nimmo provided a thoughtful example to analyzing Russia’s online influence. Read his assessment of the Russian intervention in the Catalan referendum here. Nimmo concludes his analysis by noting: “There is a difference between Kremlin-run outlets, pro-Kremlin or aligned outlets, and outlets and individuals whose comments are useful for the Kremlin. Any approach which does not recognize those differences is likely to further muddy an already turbid information flow.”
Stay tuned for the upcoming weekly issues of The Russia Download, addressing both foreign and domestic news from Russia.