Social media is a tool that can be used for good or evil. The Russians mastered the social media game to wreak havoc with the election last year.
The strategy was clear to divide Americans. After all, if a house is divided against itself, it cannot stand. Fake social media accounts were created by the Russians with the intention of spewing negative and false news. Talk about an ambush. Nobody expected this kind of warfare.
A recent account on Blavity.com detailed how a now-suspended Twitter account, @Crystal1 Johnson, that was allegedly that of an African American woman, for a time posted feel-good stories. But over time would infrequently tweet links to inflammatory stories about Hillary Clinton. Blavity.com reported that accounts like “Johnson’s” were used to build up influence with unwitting actors by posting shareable stories, pictures and companies and then weaponized for divisive political messages. She was one of many African Americans used to bash Hillary Clinton.
According to the Daily Beast, however, @Crystal1Johnson was identified as a Kremlin-created account by the independent Russian news agency RBC, which published an exhaustive investigation on the subject in October. At the time of the article, The Daily Beast said it had confirmed some of RBC’s reporting about accounts that were operated out of the Internet Research Agency, or “Russian troll factory.”
Right now, social media giants Twitter, Facebook and Google are on the hot seat. How did such a misinformation campaign happen under their nose? Lawyers for the big three are appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee and House panel this week about Russian-linked meddling in the U.S. election. Congress wants to know what they knew and when.
In opening remarks Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner got right to the point, “Russian operatives are attempting to infiltrate and manipulate American social media to hijack the national conversation and to make Americans angry, to set us against ourselves and to undermine our democracy. They did it during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. They are still doing it now. And not one of us is doing enough to stop it. That is why we are here today.”
He explained, “Russia’s playbook is simple, but formidable. It works like this: Disinformation agents set up thousands of fake accounts, groups and pages across a wide array of platforms. These fake accounts populate content on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, LinkedIn, and others. Each of these fake accounts spend months developing networks of real people to follow and like their content, boosted by tools like paid ads and automated bots. Most of their real-life followers have no idea they are caught up in this web. Each of these networks are later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including stolen emails, state-led propaganda (like RT and Sputnik), fake news, and divisive content. The goal here is to get this content into the news feeds of as many potentially receptive Americans as possible and to covertly and subtly push them in the direction the Kremlin wants them to go.”
It will take all of us – the platform companies, the United States government, and the American people – to deal with this new and evolving threat, said Warner.
He expressed concerns that the Russian’s successful campaign will be replicated by other adversaries, both nation states and terrorists. “As such, each of you here today needs to commit more resources to identifying bad actors and, when possible, preventing them from abusing our social media ecosystem,” he said.
With pressure from the Committee, Warner said each company uncovered some evidence of the ways Russians exploited their platforms during the 2016 election.
For Facebook, much of the attention has been focused on the paid ads Russian trolls targeted to Americans. “However, these ads are just the tip of a very large iceberg. The real story is the amount of misinformation and divisive content that was pushed for free on Russian-backed Pages, which then spread widely on the News Feeds of tens of millions of Americans,” said Warner.
Warner recounted that according to data Facebook has provided, 120 Russian-backed Pages built a network of over 3.3 million real people. From these now-suspended Pages, 80,000 organic unpaid posts reached an estimated 126 million real people. “That is an astonishing reach from just one group in St. Petersburg. And I doubt that the so-called Internet Research Agency represents the only Russian trolls out there. Facebook has more work to do to see how deep this goes, including looking into the reach of the IRA-backed Instagram posts, which represent another 120,000 pieces of content,” he said.
The anonymity provided by Twitter and the speed by which it shares news makes it an ideal tool to spread disinformation. According to one study, during the 2016 campaign, junk news actually outperformed real news in some battleground states in the lead-up to Election Day. Another study found that bots generated one out of every five political messages posted on Twitter over the entire presidential campaign, reported Warner.
“I’m concerned that Twitter seems to be vastly under-estimating the number of fake accounts and bots pushing disinformation. Independent researchers have estimated that up to 15% of Twitter accounts – or potentially 48 million accounts – are fake or automated. Despite evidence of significant incursion and outreach from researchers, Twitter has, to date, only uncovered a small percentage of that activity. Though, I am pleased to see that number has been rising in recent weeks,” said Warner.
Google’s search algorithms continue to have problems in surfacing fake news or propaganda. Though we can’t necessarily attribute to the Russian effort, false stories and unsubstantiated rumors were elevated on Google Search during the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, said Warner. Meanwhile, YouTube has become RT’s go-to platform. You have also now uncovered 1100 videos associated with this campaign. Much more of your content was likely spread through other platforms.
Warner was clear that there’s much work for everyone to do. “It is not just the platforms that need to do more. The U.S. government has thus far proven incapable of adapting to meet this 21st century challenge. Unfortunately, I believe this effort is suffering, in part, because of a lack of leadership at the top. We have a President who remains unwilling to acknowledge the threat that Russia poses to our democracy. President Trump should stop actively delegitimizing American journalism and acknowledge and address this real threat posed by Russian propaganda.”
Congress, too, must do more. “We need to recognize that current law was not built to address these threats. I have partnered with Senators Klobuchar and McCain on a light-touch legislative approach, which I hope my colleagues with review. The Honest Ads Act is a national security bill intended to protect our elections from foreign influence,” said Warner.
Finally – but perhaps most importantly, he said, “The American people also need to be aware of what is happening on our news feeds. We all need to take a more discerning approach to what we are reading and sharing, and who we are connecting with online. We need to recognize that the person at the other end of that Facebook or Twitter argument may not be a real person at all. The fact is that this Russian weapon has already proven its success and cost effectiveness. We can all be assured that other adversaries, including foreign intelligence operatives and potentially terrorist organizations, are reading their playbook and already taking action. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for this Committee’s final report before taking action to respond to this threat to our democracy.”