What's really important about Facebook Russia Ads

Those Russian-bought online spots might be just a hint of a darker, undetected flood of attempts at influence, according to experts in political communication.

Dado Ruvic/Reuters
A 3D model of the Facebook logo is seen in front of a Russian flag in this photo illustration taken in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, May 22, 2015. Facebook ads in the US have been linked to Russia, raising questions about attempts to exert influence on US elections.

Yes, a shadowy Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin bought about $100,000 worth of Facebook ads intended to sway voters during last year’s presidential campaign, the social media giant disclosed earlier this month.

Does it matter? Given the tens of millions spent on political ads in 2016 that’s a bucket of water thrown down a storm drain. And influencing elections with ads is a delicate science. It requires coordination, timing, and finesse – three things the Russian ad buy doesn’t seem to have had.

The problem is, those Russian-bought online spots might be just a hint of a darker, undetected flood of attempts at influence, according to experts in political communication. To use a different analogy they might be the equivalent of the Watergate break-in. That was a petty crime that by itself didn’t sway the 1972 election. Its real importance was rooted in the vast, illegal conspiracy of which it was a symbol and product.

Thus despite the small size of the Russian Facebook ad buy, “it’s really important to American politics,” says David Karpf, an associate professor in George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, making the comparison with Watergate.

Facebook revealed the ad buy in question in a blog post from its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, on September 6. Congressional investigators had been pressuring the firm to look more closely at the possible relationship between its online ads and what US intelligence concludes was a Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 vote.

Between June 2015 and May 2017, 470 “inauthentic” accounts and pages associated with each other and likely operated out of Russia bought about 3,000 ads, wrote Mr. Stamos. About one-quarter of the ads were targeted to a specific geographical area.

Most of the ads did not directly mention a candidate or the election. Instead, they focused on amplifying divisive social and political messages, concluded Facebook. 

A common approach

That’s now a common Kremlin approach. Consider Facebook’s smaller rival Twitter. On Sept. 19, the top trending topic from accounts and bots linked to Russia was “Manafort,” according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a transatlantic initiative that monitors their activity. That’s almost certainly a reference to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager now in deep legal trouble for alleged connections to Russian figures. The third trending topic was “Pelosi” – House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, a lawmaker heartily disliked by many conservatives.

In one sense, Russia’s social media efforts are a new frontier in Moscow’s historic propaganda efforts. The Kremlin has long used disinformation to manipulate its own citizens while attempting to sow fear, mistrust, and even envy among westerners. 

The problem with the old efforts was that they were tied to a political system which had to be defended. This often rendered them clunky, unbelievable, and flat uninteresting. “Soviet Life,” a glossy magazine targeted for readers in the US and Western Europe, featured such gripping articles as “Uzbekistan: Sixty Years of Progress,” and “Bad Day for a Wild Boar.”

In the old days the Soviet Union was limited by ideology and the party line, as well as the grip of bureaucracy, which insisted on multiple approvals for every little item. Propaganda was expensive, and money was tight.

“Under Stalin in particular, people were simply afraid to approve anything interesting, innovative, different, so they often did not,” writes Patryk Babiracki, a historian at the University of Texas-Arlington and fellow at the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies, in an email. 

Now those constraints are all gone, according to Dr. Babiracki, author of “Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957.” Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has recognized that escalating and transforming the old propaganda effort is central to his effort to push back against Western dominance. Kremlin-funded outlets such as TV network RT explicitly model themselves on slick Western counterparts. The internet and social media have opened up vast new territory, with automated bots, paid trolls, and military hackers combining to push the Russian line.

This info war is carried out with “finesse,” says Babiracki. Russian-linked accounts repeat false stories, question credible evidence, and amplify any actual news they wish to spread, about intolerance, ideological divisions, terrorism, and natural catastrophes.

“This is all stuff that happens, of course, but the Kremlin wants Western readers to feel that this might be defining of the world in which they live in order to undermine their confidence in the liberal-democratic order,” according to Babiracki.

Part of a larger plan

Given this context, the revelations about the Facebook purchase may seem like a brief glimpse through a door at a larger world beyond.

By itself, the $100,000 ad buy certainly didn’t swing the election. That’s chump change for one thing – the Hillary Clinton campaign alone spent $30 million on digital ads in the campaign’s final months. President Trump’s campaign team focused much of their ad spending online, running 40,000 to 50,000 variants of ads every day to see how tweaks, such as the addition or elimination of subtitles, affected performance.

Plus, as political scientists will tell you, ads don’t work. They are limited in their power to swing voters from one side to another. Their effect wears off quickly. Bunching them is the best policy. They can be effective at giving a little push to voters already leaning one way or another. 

What matters is that the $100,000 did not come from nowhere, according to George Washington University’s David Karpf, author of “Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy.” Maybe the Kremlin was just experimenting or trying to mess with candidates’ heads. More likely the money was part of something larger – larger purchases that have yet to be fully detected, or even, as critics charge, part of a larger data effort that might even have been coordinated with data targeting officials linked to the Trump campaign.

There is no public evidence of such linkage. However, special counsel Robert Mueller has served Facebook with a search warrant to gather information on the accounts linked to the Russian spending, according to CNN and The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Mueller appears to be trying to piece together as large a picture as possible of Russia’s clandestine information effort, and any possible links with US persons.

Some members of Congress believe Facebook has not been entirely forthcoming with them, and are threatening to call chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg to testify at hearings, perhaps with an eye to further regulations or legislation that would force the firm to be more transparent about its effect on politics.

But for Facebook the immediate worry is probably Mueller, not televised hearings.

“The question I have is how well is Facebook cooperating with Mueller,” says Dr. Karpf. “If they are cooperating fully with Mueller, it probably signals they get it.”

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