THE Facebook ads placed by a Russian troll farm and released on Wednesday show that the Russian propaganda campaign of 2016 didn’t favour either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, it mocked and goaded America, holding up a distorted but, in the final analysis, remarkably accurate mirror.
This directly contradicts previous US intelligence community assessments.
“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the intelligence community assessment released in January stated. “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.”
If the social network ads placed by the St Petersburg Internet Research Agency — a troll collective linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected restaurateur — reflect the strategy of the influence campaign, the intelligence community was wrong. The ads backed white nationalist as well as black causes.
They often targeted Clinton before the election but switched to attacking Trump immediately afterwards. The ads against both were even visually similar.
A conceivable defence of the intelligence conclusion is that you can’t interfere in the election after the voters have chosen, so only the anti-Clinton bias of the Russian campaign really made a difference.
That argument is lame, however.
Neither the trolls with their tiny budgets — at best, hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates and their US backers — nor Russian state media with their laughable reach compared with US cable TV could have hoped to shape the election outcome.
That would assume they knew more about US-based influence tools than the entire US political industry, which had been using these tools from the moment they were created, with their creators’ full cooperation.
Even today, the best Russian experts on the political uses of the social networks believe it would have been impossible to tip the scales with that kind of effort. Leonid Volkov, an internet entrepreneur and campaign manager to Putin’s No 1 domestic foe, anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook on Thursday:
“When people discuss, in all seriousness, ‘election interference’ by means of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads [hundreds of times less than the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent on FB ads], when leading political publications show as ‘proof’ hellish pictures the most viral of which garnered all of 200,000 views [and most got only a few thousand; 500 roubles — not thousand dollars, not even dollars — was spent on promoting some of them] — this is just not done, it is, above all, simply shameful. Darn, we got a total of 2 million views for our social network ads before a rally in Astrakhan, and it cost us 20,000 roubles. So what are you even talking about?”
Volkov’s campaigns are among the most sophisticated in Russia today. The St Petersburg trolls, on entry-level salaries of about $1,000 a month, are far less savvy than Navalny’s highly motivated team. The silly mistakes they made in their English — the misuse of modal verbs, the missing articles, the clumsy turns of phrase — are evidence that they were the lowest of info war foot soldiers.
They weren’t playing to win the US election — just to stir things up as much as they could. They weren’t Republicans or Democrats: these parties don’t operate in St Petersburg. They were trolls, happy to make a dent here, create a disturbance there, and amplify an echo somewhere else.
The campaign was not tied to election timelines: it’s permanent, and it will go on while the US and Russia are adversaries. In that sense, it’s no different from the Russian influence campaign in Ukraine. Elections and government changes that do nothing to alter the relationship between countries are just a useful background for propaganda, disinformation and sheer trollery because they politicise the audience and draw its attention to the divisive issues that propagandists exploit. Instability and confusion are the primary goals, and they’re easy to achieve on the cheap.
I’ve written for more than a year that the Kremlin’s goal in the US election was not to promote either of the candidates. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin made no secret of his special dislike for Clinton, he was never short-sighted enough to trust Trump — and no one in a position of power in Russia ever indicated that he did. The influence campaign’s real goal was to amplify America’s organic discord and undermine trust in institutions.
The current hearings about the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ads, with angry senators and squirming corporate lawyers hoping to avoid heavy-handed, misguided regulation, serve this purpose even better than the original ads did. US legislators look powerless; the Americans who were supposedly taken in by the cheap, badly made ads look ignorant. US intelligence agencies look politicised and incapable of serious analysis, let alone effective resistance, when it comes to Russian “active measures”.
The fit of US self-flagellation likely goes beyond the trolls’ and propagandists’ wildest dreams. A nation, with the world’s best-funded and most professional media and an institutional framework other nations could only dream of, ought to be able to ignore the Russian propagandists’ pitiful, incompetent efforts.
The problem with Facebook and Twitter is not that you can pay in roubles for political ads but that an unknown, probably large percentage of their reported “users” are fake — but US legislators neglect to address it in the face of the firms’ heavy lobbying artillery; while some questions have been asked about it at the hearing, no regulatory remedy has been proposed.
The problem with the American policy (and polity) goes even deeper than that: the US is a bitterly divided country, and it wasn’t Russian propagandists who created these divisions, though they were happy to read about them in the US media and use them in their efforts.
It’s time the US used its enormous resources to catch actual spies, if any were involved in the “election interference”, or other collusion, and any agents those spies could have recruited in the US.
And it’s time US law enforcement turned to the search for the dirty money that has corrupted the US political establishment. Gazing with endless fascination into the trolls’ mirror is counterproductive; one glance should have been enough to see what really needs fixing.
—By arrangement with Bloomberg-The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2017