How Russia Used Social Media to Suppress the Vote in 2016

Information continues to trickle out about how Russia used social media to help elect Donald Trump. For example, just recently we learned that not only did they employ Facebook and Twitter, the also used Google platforms.

The Silicon Valley giant has found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents who aimed to spread disinformation across Google’s many products, which include YouTube, as well as advertising associated with Google search, Gmail, and the company’s DoubleClick ad network, the people said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that have not been made public. Google runs the world’s largest online advertising business, and YouTube is the world’s largest online video site.

Reporters at the Daily Beast have provided us with an example of “two black video bloggers calling themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson, whose social media pages investigators say are part of the broad Russian campaign to influence American politics.”

We’ve also learned that Russian operatives used social media to target veterans and military personnel and that there is evidence that propaganda was particularly targeted to voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Back when Facebook first went public with the information that they had identified 470 accounts that were operated out of Russia and had traced ad sales totaling $100,000 to a Russian “troll farm,” some people discounted the importance of that revelation because it involved such a small amount of money. At the time, that struck me as a critique based on a total misunderstanding of how Facebook works.

Media analyst Jonathan Albright has done some research that validates my assumption. Of the 470 accounts Facebook identified, six of them have been made public—Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders and LGBT United. In studying just those six, Albright found that content from them had been “shared” 340 million times. That is approximately 57 million shares per account, which would total over 2.5 billion shares for the combined 470 accounts. All of that was done before we even get to the ads that were purchased.

In terms of content, it is also interesting what Albright learned from those six accounts.

…most of them have nothing to do with the Nov. 8 election. Instead they are tailored to fit seamlessly into the ordinary online conversation of their particular audiences — politically activated African Americans, gay women, Muslims and people concerned about illegal immigration, Texan heritage or the treatment of veterans. There is talk of political issues, but relatively little about voting for Republican Donald Trump or against Democrat Hillary Clinton.

He found that there was actually a two-step process.

The first was to identify voters and sort them into buckets based on the issues they responded to. This was done through the organic posts. The second step was to target voters in these buckets with Russian- bought political ads shaped to their interests, with the intention — in at least some cases — of affecting voting behavior.

You might wonder how they used Facebook accounts focused on Blactivists, Muslims and LGBT for their purposes of electing Trump. Here are Albright’s conclusions:

To the extent there is a discernible political motive in them, the goal seemed less to inspire enthusiasm for one candidate than to dampen support for voting at all. This fits with what many other researchers and investigators have said about the Russian disinformation campaign, that it drove directly at the fractures in American society and sought to widen them.

“A lot of these posts had the intent to get people not to vote,” Albright said.

When it comes to Facebook, Russia got all of that for the paltry sum of $100,000 plus the time spent on it by their bots. That is why Steve Bannon said that money in campaigns isn’t as important as it used to be, because there are technological tools that can do it all for very little money.

This also demonstrates that the Russian attempt to influence the election was not only very sophisticated, it was built to reinforce the message of the Trump campaign (or vice versa). Whether or not that indicates collusion will be up to Mueller’s team to prove.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.