Everyone on Facebook can check to see if they unknowingly interacted with a post from a Russian agency trying to influence the presidential race and American politics in general during the 2016 campaign. Facebook (FB) estimated before Congress in the fall that 126 million users were exposed to those posts and ads.
In addition, people who are concerned now have the opportunity to study some hair-raising examples of the thousands of mind-twisting pieces of propaganda created by Russian operatives in the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The posts and ads of the IRA that were surreptitiously put before various targeted FB audiences are similar to those placed on other media, too.
Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, were indicted by a grand jury charging them with conspiracy to defraud the United States for allegedly meddling with the 2016 election, it was announced last Friday by the Justice Department. Some were indicted for wire and bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
“The Internet Research Agency had a ‘strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system’ including the election, according to the indictment. Russians posted ‘derogatory information about a number of candidates,’ and by mid-2016 they supported Trump and disparaged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. They bought ads and communicated with ‘unwitting’ people tied to Trump campaign and others to coordinate political activities,” CNN reported on Friday.
As of Feb. 13, the Russians were still attempting to polarize American voters and favor Donald Trump. On that date the chiefs of the federal intelligence agencies told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians are continuing their successful propaganda campaign using American media to influence the 2018 Congressional elections.
How many votes they changed or affected is not relevant or knowable. We do know it is against federal law for a foreign power to use its resources to try to effect the outcome of elections here—not to mention for anyone to commit fraud—and that’s enough.
Whether the US still has a Russian criminal loose in the domestic political realm (President Trump recently announced he won’t even apply sanctions to the Russians voted for by an overwhelming majority of Congress.) after the indictments were issued remains to be seen. Regardless, we need to educate ourselves about specifically what the Russians got away with in tampering with the 2016 campaign and have been trying to do again in the 2018 Congressional election. Then we have to find ways to confront it directly, the intelligence chiefs emphasized.
Voter education about how to take in media, especially social media, is fundamental. FB users may go to bit.ly/2A03OuQ. That help section says, “We have taken down fake accounts and Pages created by foreign actors attempting to interfere in the 2016 US Elections.” It provides a link to click “to check to see of you liked or followed a Facebook Page or Instagram account created by the Internet Research Agency, the organization associated with these accounts and Pages.” (Other Russian organizations and agencies reportedly also practiced election propaganda on Facebook and elsewhere.)
Unfortunately, the link can only tell users if they directly Liked or followed an original Russian propaganda Page. If a user Liked or shared a post from that Page that was posted by a friend, which is more likely, it will not show up in the FB report.
I saw a couple of the sample posts in my newsfeed in 2016, but I didn’t react to them. My report shows I had no direct interaction with any of them.
On its Help Page Facebook also spells out its “action plan” to learn more about who is sponsoring material and block improper use in the future.
In keeping with its motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” The Washington Post did a huge public service in this past November when it published several articles about what Facebook revealed to Congress about the massive numbers of posts the Russian government placed and promoted on FB between June 2015 and August 2017. Most helpful of all, its website features 16 examples of the thousands of targeted, deceptive posts and information about responses to them and how they were distributed.
Seeing those posts and the cynical manner in which they were worded and purposely directed—trying to push liberals and conservatives toward Russian goals of disruption, distrust, and the election of Donald Trump—is frightening.
Each one is like a punch to the gut to anyone who values our First Amendment rights, as well as transparency. Go to wapo.st/2Hm9TmD to see samples of secretly Russian-owned Facebook posts the House Intelligence Committee released.
Just one example: Bernie Sanders is holding his hand up in a typical gesture, pointing at the ceiling. Over his head are the words “Bernie Sanders: Clinton Foundation is a ‘Problem.’” The sponsored post from what we now know was a Russian-owned site called “Born Liberal” first ran in June 2016. It was targeted to people ages 18-65 who had expressed interest in Bernie Sanders. It was seen almost 2,000 times, getting 222 clicks, 124 reactions, 5 comments and 21 shares. It invited people, of course, to “Like Page.”
Among the thousands of oddities in the 2016 election and the resulting Trump presidency is that media itself—social and more traditional—have become a major focus of political discussion. Media cover media cover media in a complex, multi-layered jumble that often confuses more than enlightens the public.
For example, traditional media keep referring to “ads” the Russians bought on Facebook. To FB users, “ads” are little boxes on the right. What the Russians also often did was create fake organizations, make Pages for them on FB, then pay to have their posts appear in the news feed in the center of the page where messages from friends appear but with the word “Sponsored” in small print under the name.
Other social media, including Twitter, Instagram, Google and YouTube have also been found to have unknowingly hosted thousands of pieces of Russian propaganda on their sites.
Unfortunately, many media outlets have been reticent—some out of embarrassment and wanting to protect their reputations, as well as wanting to preserve free speech rights—to reveal the specifics that would show the public exactly what happened and how to examine information and the sources of it to determine its reliability. It’s a new topic to them, too.
Facebook, which was slow to discover and reveal the extent of Russian penetration of its site—announced on Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 that people could check to see if they interacted with a Russian post. Most media that even reported the FB announcement did so on Dec. 26 or 27. Not many people saw it. Journalists sometimes call it a “holiday surprise” when government and corporations make controversial announcements right before a holiday when media staff and the public are likely to be distracted.
All of us have new responsibilities to educate ourselves about the differences between propaganda and legitimate information—between protected opinion and direct, intentional deception. We need to insist government and legitimate media outlets cooperate to show everyone what’s been going wrong and try to prevent further secret, outside manipulation of our domestic political conversation.
Sandra Storey is founder and former publisher and editor of the Jamaica Plain Gazette.