We’re learning more about how Russians used social media to sow social divisions in America leading up to last year’s election.
In fact, Facebook, which made “friend” a verb, was used by enemies of values vital to our democracy when about 470 inauthentic accounts and pages that “were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia” spent about $100,000 for roughly 3,000 ads that didn’t particularly push for a preferred presidential candidate but “appeared to favor amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” according to a statement from Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer.
While the sum may seem small, social media’s amplification effect is big. Exactly how big can never be known in a contested election where “everything matters but nothing is necessarily definitive,” said Graham Brookie, deputy director of the Digital Forensics Research Lab at the Atlantic Council.
Further reporting from the New York Times and the Daily Beast details a since-purged Facebook page with reported ties to the Russian government that tried to rally residents of Twin Falls, Idaho, to attend an anti-immigrant event called “Citizens before refugees.” Referring to immigrants as “scum” and “freeloaders” and falsely tying them to crime, it also pushed President Donald Trump’s immigration stance.
More than 133,000 followed the Facebook page before it was shut down and, according to a separate report from Business Insider, more than 225,000 followed a “Heart of Texas” page that tried to organize anti-immigrant, anti-Hillary Clinton rallies across the Lone Star state just days before the election.
These latest revelations of Russian aggression come in the context of the consensus report from U.S. intelligence agencies that stated: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
The Facebook fake account effort underlines the “undermine public faith in the US democratic process” tactic.
“That goal intentionally revolves around the idea that Russia sees the world as a zero-sum game: When the United States is weaker, Russia is stronger,” said Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.
Thoburn, who specializes in Eastern Europe, where similar Russian interference has occurred, called the recent revelations regarding Facebook “a wake-up call.”
To Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., speaking to reporters on Tuesday, it’s “just the tip of the iceberg.”
Warner wants leaders from Facebook and Twitter to testify in public about how Russian entities use their sites. And Russia’s use of social media during the campaign is a “red-hot” focus of Robert Mueller, special consul investigating Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election, according to a Bloomberg report.
Considering the fact that two-thirds of U.S. adults get some news from social media, according to a new Pew Research Center survey, the special consul’s — and the Kremlin’s — focus on Facebook and Twitter is understandable.
And if it’s not political news, it’s political noise from inflammatory Facebook posts, especially around the election, that made for favorable conditions to exploit emotions and further divisions. For instance, 53 percent said social media political discussions were less respectful compared with other places people might discuss politics, while only 5 percent said they were more respectful, according to a Pew poll taken last October.
“Anybody from the intelligence community will tell you that influence operations aren’t designed to create an impact, they’re designed to exploit existing tensions or vulnerabilities,” said Brookie, an adviser to the National Security Council during the Obama administration. Regarding Russia’s motive, “It’s a pretty clear geopolitical question,” Brookie said. “A more divided America at home directly undercuts our ability to lead abroad, and that’s the ballgame we’re working with here.”
Russia’s playing other games, too, including the biggest war-gaming exercise since the Cold War that began in Belarus on Thursday.
The exercise is known as “Zapad-2017.”
“Zapad” means “West” in Russian.
As for social media, “it’s the wild, wild West,” Warner said in Washington. Whether Congress tries to tame it is unclear, but more transparency is essential, and the heat from lawmakers (let alone Facebook employees) over Russia’s brazen use of the site to widen divides in America may soon be a significant political issue. (And Thursday’s report from Pro Publica that Facebook enabled advertisers to target self-described “Jew haters” and other anti-Semitic users will amplify scrutiny of the company.)
Whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian entities remains the purview of congressional committees and Mueller’s investigation. But this much is clear: Russia interfered in America’s election, and the country is involved in attempts to tear at our already frayed social fabric. Even in a deeply divided society, that fact should unite Americans to demand that Washington and Silicon Valley act to defend our democracy.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.