“If you’d come to me in 2012, when the last presidential election was raging and we were cooking up ever more complicated ways to monetize Facebook data, and told me that Russian agents in the Kremlin’s employ would be buying Facebook ads to subvert American democracy, I’d have asked where your tin-foil hat was,” wrote Antonio García Martínez, who managed ad targeting for Facebook back then. “And yet, now we live in that otherworldly political reality.”
You don’t think about it when it happens. It just happens. You’re on the train, going into work, and (even if you didn’t hear the little “Ping!”) you feel a strange compulsion every five minutes to look down into the palm of your hand. Because your hand is clutching an Apple Smartphone. And your best friends have just sent you a link that you just have to see, right now.
It’s on Facebook, your favorite site. The Facebook “app” came with the phone you bought. All your friends use it. Your whole family uses it.
Everyone uses it. Nearly half of all Americans now get their news from Facebook.
And a couple years before you bought that phone, someone in Moscow was thinking to themselves, well, how can we leverage this to our benefit? How can we take advantage of the fact that millions of Americans spend the better part of their days staring into a communication device more powerful than any television set, with more reach than any television network ever launched, a simple electronic box with more influence than any news organization ever created on Earth?
They would think to themselves, what a tremendous opportunity to tend to our … interests. What a compelling, once-in a century chance to exercise power over a historical enemy, one that clings to ridiculously outmoded and obsolete notions of “openness” and Democracy. A silly country that, despite its military superiority, is made up of soft, spoiled, gullible American citizens. Ones that might actually take offense at a leader who staged the murder of his country’s own citizens in order to attain political power, but would certainly rally to appeals of raw, unbridled nationalism and racism. A fundamentally weak society,like the ones we’ve begun to subvert and dominate in Europe. A Democracy (ha ha..!)
How can we exploit this, they would say to themselves.
It all started so innocently:
We’ve known since at least 2012 that Facebook was a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics. In that year, a combined University of California, San Diego and Facebook research team led by James Fowler published a study in Nature, which argued that Facebook’s “I Voted” button had driven a small but measurable increase in turnout, primarily among young people.
Alexis Madrigal, writing for The Atlantic, chronicles the rise of Facebook as the digital arbiter of our politics and pieces together the warning signs that should have been heeded, but were not. Signs that what appeared to be a harmless site to “socialize” with friends could, because of its sheer ubiquity, be weaponized by a malevolent, autocratic foreign government through its intelligence services as a tool to subvert, and ultimately destroy Western-style democracies.
As Madrigal points out, all of the information to predict what obviously occurred in 2016 was out there, and reported on, even in The Atlantic alone. But no one put it all together until it was too late.
The conventional wisdom always held that social media such as Facebook would intrinsically benefit progressives and Democrats, simply because these technologies appeared to have sprung from the minds of relatively young, relatively open-minded people. The much-touted “free exchange of ideas” supposedly offered by social media seemed tailor-made to usher in a new era of progressive viewpoints being spread far and wide via the world wide web.
What no one seemed to predict, though, was the phenomenon of political Balkanization in this country, the susceptibility to persuasion by groups of people acting under the assumption that millions of others think exactly like them, and how that could be exploited. One relatively obscure study showed what could happen:
In late 2014, The Daily Dot called attention to an obscure Facebook-produced case study on how strategists defeated a statewide measure in Florida by relentlessly focusing Facebook ads on Broward and Dade counties, Democratic strongholds. Working with a tiny budget that would have allowed them to send a single mailer to just 150,000 households, the digital-advertising firm Chong and Koster was able to obtain remarkable results. “Where the Facebook ads appeared, we did almost 20 percentage points better than where they didn’t,” testified a leader of the firm. “Within that area, the people who saw the ads were 17 percent more likely to vote our way than the people who didn’t. Within that group, the people who voted the way we wanted them to, when asked why, often cited the messages they learned from the Facebook ads.”
This study and some others clearly showed how Facebook could have an outsize impact on the electoral process. And people nodded in agreement—yes, here was a new medium for political advertising and GOTV. The political parties and their backers poured more and more resources into candidate and “issue”advertisements on Facebook, targeting their base. All well and good.
But no one seemed to consider the elephant in the room—how this transition to a Facebook-based political environment could be exploited to undermine the entire foundation of our democracy:
[R]ather than focusing specifically on the integrity of elections, most writers—myself included, some observers like Sasha Issenberg, Zeynep Tufekci, and Daniel Kreiss excepted—bundled electoral problems inside other, broader concerns like privacy, surveillance, tech ideology, media-industry competition, or the psychological effects of social media.
Facebook’s “News Feed” is its most important technical accomplishment. It is specifically tailored to generate engagement (and make Facebook money by fostering its habitual use by the public), and it does its job very well. People spend nearly an hour a day on Facebook, mostly combing through the articles that pop up in their news feeds. This is how many, if not most, of Americans develop their “opinions” on issues. But there is a corollary at work—in establishing those opinions, they reject anything contradictory to them. The News Feed helps them do this by creating an environment where everything Americans read seems to be tailored to their own viewpoint. In fact, it creates a separate world that is impenetrable to dissenting viewpoints. When Facebook instituted a means for its users to “like” media pages, the resulting flood of views to these media sources by the public effectively turned Facebook into the sole arbiter of news distribution. Much of the early traffic went to progressive sites, in keeping with the general assumption that Facebook fostered progressive views. But something else began to happen:
Less noticed was that a right-wing media was developing in opposition to and alongside these left-leaning sites. “By 2014, the outlines of the Facebook-native hard-right voice and grievance spectrum were there,” The New York Times’ media and tech writer John Herrman told me, “and I tricked myself into thinking they were a reaction/counterpart to the wave of soft progressive/inspirational content that had just crested. It ended up a Reaction in a much bigger and destabilizing sense.”
What happened was Breitbart, “a right-wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective to the world.”
That’s why your neighbor down the street with the “Trump” sign has never read the New York Times. He’s never read The Atlantic, he’s never heard of Think Progress, he has no idea what “Talking Points Memo” is, or “Daily Kos,” for that matter. And he never will. There is no equivalent to Breitbart on the left. Not yet, anyway.
But not only are average American voters kept in the dark about what “the other side” is seeing, in 2016 the political campaigns themselves were in the dark. In 2011, even before Facebook took over the news distribution system, Eli Pariser wrote a book about this phenomenon called “The Filter Bubble.”
“As the number of different segments and messages increases, it becomes harder and harder for the campaigns to track who’s saying what to whom,” Pariser wrote. “How does a [political] campaign know what its opponent is saying if ads are only targeted to white Jewish men between 28 and 34 who have expressed a fondness for U2 on Facebook and who donated to Barack Obama’s campaign?”
The simple reality is that message targeting on Facebook presents an opponent with too much data pointed in too many ways, reappearing and disappearing in instants—to effectively track.
And that is where the Russians came in. But first they had an assist from Gamers, 4Chaners, and trolls, many of whose whole existence consisted of getting their jollies by propagating fake news stories on the Internet. Often for a lark, often to satisfy deep-seated psychological problems, but for many, just for the opportunity to spout the racism and misogyny that they all felt but were kept by social norms from spouting. Nearly all of these folks had one thing in common—they all loved Donald Trump.
Phony news stories, such as “Pizzagate” received astonishingly high amounts of traffic on social media. The international reach of the web also swept away traditional geographic boundaries for this phenomenon. In the days before the 2016 election,100 pro-Donald Trump sites were traced to a tiny town in Macedonia, for example, as teenagers across the world discovered they could make money by distorting the American presidential campaign. And—to make a long story short—the Russians and others began to take a keen interest in how a concerted effort on social media could de-stabilize the American political process, by stoking, among other things, racism and nationalism among people likely to vote for Donald Trump, whom they (rightly) saw as inclined to favor their strategic interests, based on his past associations with them.
To maintain control of its own citizens, the Russian government under Vladimir Putin has “industrialized” trolling. They have virtual armies of people who do nothing but generate fake news in state-controlled digital Russian “boiler rooms” such as “The Internet Research Agency,” to dupe their own population and keep them docile. The Russians had already witnessed the success of such efforts when they invaded Ukraine. Digital disinformation techniques became a key part of their military strategy:
A Guardian reporter who looked into Russian military doctrine around information war found a handbook that described how it might work. “The deployment of information weapons, [the book] suggests, ‘acts like an invisible radiation’ upon its targets: ‘The population doesn’t even feel it is being acted upon. So the state doesn’t switch on its self-defense mechanisms,’” wrote Peter Pomerantsev.
The Russians simply applied the techniques they’d already been using on their own citizens to the 2016 American presidential campaign, taking full advantage of the fact that no one would be able—at least until after the fact—to track their meddling due to the sheer inundation of postings targeted to specific pro-Trump voters. And America did not notice it was being “acted upon.” Our intelligence services were thoroughly, shockingly AWOL, possibly due to the fact that many of them were too busy reading Breitbart and the Drudge Report to begin with. In fact, if you believe Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook itself didn’t notice it. Even though Russian-generated anti-Hillary, pro-Trump content is now known to have been shared over 340 million times.
But it was happening. Millions of Americans were viewing Russian-created ads for Donald Trump, engaging with Russian “bots” and provocateurs who claimed to be Trump supporters, and reading fake news stories, all actions geared to get them to hate Hillary Clinton with such a passion that they would crawl over glass to vote against her. And the traditional news organizations had no idea what was going on. In the meantime, the Trump campaign retained the data mining company Cambridge Analytica, which (it appears) acted as a vehicle to channel the Russian efforts to their targeted electorate.
And now we are looking at the result: President Donald Trump.
Madrigal stresses that the real problem here—and the real threat this country is facing—is not that a “Republican beat a Democrat,” but that the underpinning of what we understand as “Democracy,” the knowledge base of American citizens, has been co-opted and subverted. That knowledge base—the existence of sources of information that can be reputably relied upon to inform Americans in their decisions—had already been corrupted by the balkanization and separation of Americans into “camps” caused by a near-total reliance on Facebook and its News Feed, which is now acting as a conduit for channeling propaganda specifically designed to harm America. These camps do not interact—they do not see each other at all. That is bad enough because it hardens the obstinacy of those on the right to accept the reality that they are being propagandized.
But the fact that Russian Intelligence is now in effect engaged in controlling the thought processes of millions of Americans through phony news filtered through hyper-partisan right-wing conduits, by use of Facebook, for the sole purpose of destabilizing the country, makes this more than simply some hypothetical threat. It is a threat to the existence of American Democracy, which is exactly what the Russians want.
And it’s happening right before our eyes.