I just turned this in as an assignment for my Social Engineering class. It has not been graded yet. Enjoy!
For the last several years, it has been alleged and believed by some that President Trump would not have been elected in 2016 if the Russians had not bought ads on Facebook on behalf of fake clients. Understandably these allegations caused a lot of Facebook users to reconsider whether or not they should continue to support Facebook. In order to safely use Facebook or any social media platform, it is important to develop skills to help determine the credibility and reputation of any individual or organization.
As a Facebook user of many years duration, to help me decide the truth of the 2016 election influence claims, I sought answers to the following questions.
Are there examples of who made the allegations?
Here are a couple. Donald Trump’s opponent Hilary Clinton, named Facebook as one of the causes of her loss and declared that CEO Mark Zuckerberg should “pay a price” (Cadwalladr). It’s interesting that Mark Elias, counsel for Hilary Clinton’s campaign, helped Facebook to avoid putting disclaimers on ads back in 2011 (O’Sullivan).
In October 2020, Senator Mark Warner (D., Va.) wrote to Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, to urge Twitter to allow political ads after Twitter had banned them (Warner), even though in 2018 he had criticized Facebook for selling ads to what he identified only as “Russians” (Crookston). He also criticized YouTube for allowing radicalizing content by “Chinese, Iranian and others”. In Warner’s 2020 letter, he decries “Russians” use of ads even as he tries to persuade Twitter to accept ads. Referring to 2016, the 2020 letter states: “Russia took advantage of our openness and communications technologies, including exploiting American-bred social media platforms to spread disinformation, divide the public, and undermine our democracy.”
Has anyone attempted to refute the allegations against Facebook?
Here is the opinion of Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth. “So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.” (“Lord of the Rings…”). This opinion by Bosworth and subsequent opinions I attribute to him are taken from text purported to be from an internal memo that was published on the New York Times web site. I accessed what claims to be this memo on the web site TechyLawyer because the NYT article is behind a paywall and the Webster University online library doesn’t have the article. Since I’ve seen quotes from this memo on other web sites that match the TechyLawyer site, unless I come across information that the content been misrepresented, I’m accepting for now that this is what the memo actually did say.
It was reported by the Washington Free Beacon in the context of the 2018 midterm elections, that Senator Mark Warner was of the opinion that while Facebook is a concern, YouTube and Google hosted far more misinformation than Facebook and were less transparent and less cooperative than Facebook was in trying to fight the trend (Crookston). There was a video accompanying this article, formerly hosted by YouTube, which has since been taken down, I don’t know by whom. The senator’s remarks were quoted on many other web sites that I looked at so barring information to the contrary I find the reporting credible.
Did Russians in fact buy ads?
Bosworth weighs in. “Russian Interference was real but it was mostly not done through advertising. Instead, the Russians worked to exploit existing divisions in the American public for example by hosting Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter protest events in the same city on the same day” (“Lord of the Rings…”).
What is meant by “Russians”? Do they mean the Russian government, Russian citizens, Russian-Americans, who exactly?
NPR reported that 3,000 Facebook ads were purchased on behalf of a Russian agency (Folkenflik). NPR did not say what kind of agency. An ad agency? A spy agency? That was not made clear. CNN referred to the ad buyers in question as a “Russian troll farm” (O’Sullivan). I kept clicking links to see what the actual identity of the “Russian troll farm”/”agency” is and ultimately came up against the New York Times paywall.
The Baltimore Sun alleges that the ads were placed by a Kremlin-influenced agency but the article includes no citation or source for Kremlin involvement (Fritze). The Politico article names the agency in question as “Internet Research Agency” and says it is Kremlin-linked but attributes no source for this information other than unnamed members of the House Intelligence Panel and provides no quotes or links to help verify (Politico Staff). The Washington Post refers to them as “Russian Operatives” without clarifying what that means (Keating, et al).
What are some examples of the fake Facebook clients?
According to NPR, the Russian ads were turned over to Congress by Facebook (Folkenflik). Names of the alleged fake organizations that I was able to find include “Black Matters”, “Native Americans United”, “LGBT United”, “Being Patriotic”, “Army of Jesus”, “United Muslims of America”, “Secured Borders”, “BM (does this stand for Black Matters, Bowel Movement, or something else?)”, “Born Liberal”, “_american.made”, “Heart of Texas” and “american.veterans”.
What was the content of the fake ads?
I think it’s interesting that Bosworth claimed in his memo that this Russian agency bought ads pitting Black Lives Matter against Blue Lives matter, but NPR reported that Russia was trying to inflame divisions between Muslims and Black Lives Matter (Folkenflik). Is it the position of NPR that Blue Lives Matter and Muslims are allies? That is unclear. It was also disclosed in the article that there is a financial relationship between NPR and Facebook.
In order to see which candidate the ads seem to favor, and to see whether the Russians desired Blue Lives Matter vs Black Lives Matter, or Muslims vs Black Lives Matter, I tried to find out what the ad content was. Despite hearing about the Russians and their ads for years, I could not recall seeing any images of the alleged ads so I did an image search and found alleged samples published by The Baltimore Sun, Politico and the Washington Post.
Here is a survey of the messages in the ads I could find:
Pro Black Lives Matter
Pro Native American rights
Pro Bernie Sanders
Anti Hillary Clinton
Pro secure borders
Pro Blue Lives Matter
Anti Black Lives Matter
Anti Donald Trump
Pro 2nd Amendment
Pro Texas secession
Pro military veterans
How much was spent on fake ads?
Facebook vice president Andrew Bosworth stated that “$100,000 in ads on Facebook can be a powerful tool but it can’t buy you an American election, especially when the candidates themselves are putting up several orders of magnitude more money on the same platform (not to mention other platforms) (“Lord of the Rings…”). I’ve heard the $100,000 figure quoted on many other web sites so for now I find the amount credible.
How does the amount of money spent by the Russian fake clients compare to real clients?
As of December 31, 2016, Hilary Clinton had raised 1.4 Billion and spent 98% of it, and Donald Trump had raised 957.6 million and had spent 99% of it (“Election 2016…”).
With the above questions answered to the best of my ability, how credible do I find the claims that Russian ads by fake clients determined the results of the 2016 election?
I find myself agreeing with Bosworth that $100,000 isn’t going to buy an election when the opponent has spent nearly 1.4 billion. There would be no need to spend nearly 1.4 billion if that was the case, they would have just spent $100,000. That sounds like a better deal to me!
If you only have $100,000 to spend on ads to try to win the U.S. Presidency, I think it’s reasonable to assume your message has to be better targeted than these examples in order to be effective.
I do find accusations credible that an ad agency in Russia created fake organizations for the purpose of running fake ads to run marketing tests, and I agree that the ads are examples of trolling. Trolling has been used in ads and ad tests before. I’ve done it. I wrote about my experiment and the Elizabeth Warren campaign running such a test on Facebook in an assignment for Media and Culture class in 2019 (Winkelmann).
The subject matter of the Russian ads is bizarre and inconsistent. Their overall effect seems more like it would be confusion rather than favoring any one party or issue. Actually, if I hadn’t researched these ads and just looked at them with no background, I would probably have assumed they were part of a Dadaist or Fluxus influenced performance art project. If these are indeed the same ads everyone has been talking about, I don’t think the controversy they generated is justified.
Cadwalladr, Carole. “Hillary Clinton: Zuckerberg should pay price for damage to democracy.” Guardian News & Media Limited, 2019, www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/04/hillary-clinton-mark-zuckerberg-pay-price-damage-democracy. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Crookston, Paul. “Warner Blasts Google for Allowing More Radicalization and Manipulation Than Facebook.” The Washington Free Beacon, 2018, freebeacon.com/politics/warner-blasts-google-for-allowing-more-radicalization-and-manipulation-than-facebook/. Accessed 25 March 2021.
“Election 2016: Money Raised as of Dec. 31.” The Washington Post, 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/politics/2016-election/campaign-finance/. Accessed 25 Month 2021.
Folkenflik, David. “Facebook Scrutinized Over Its Role In 2016’s Presidential Election.” npr, 2017, www.npr.org/2017/09/26/553661942/facebook-scrutinized-over-its-role-in-2016s-presidential-election. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Fritze, John. “Russian ads placed in Maryland might have been precursor to broader campaign.” Baltimore Sun, 2017, www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-russian-facebok-ad-20171101-story.html#nt=standard-embed. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Keating, Dan, Kevin Schaul and Leslie Shapiro. “The Facebook ads Russians targeted at different groups.” The Washington Post, 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/business/russian-ads-facebook-targeting/. Accessed 25 March 2021.
“Lord of the Rings, 2020 and Stuffed Oreos: Read the Andrew Bosworth Memo.” TechyLawyer, 2020, techylawyer.com/blog/lord-of-the-rings-2020-and-stuffed-oreos-read-the-andrew-bosworth-memo/. Accessed 25 March 2021.
O’Sullivan, Donie. “Facebook sought exception from political ad disclaimer rules in 2011.” Cable News Network, 2017, money.cnn.com/2017/09/27/technology/business/facebook-political-ad-rules/index.html. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Politico Staff. “The social media ads Russia wanted Americans to see.” Politico, LLC, 2017, www.politico.com/story/2017/11/01/social-media-ads-russia-wanted-americans-to-see-244423. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Warner, Mark R. Letter to Jack Dorsey. United States Senate, 2020, www.warner.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/3/a/3afc73bd-d03f-43be-801d-85417c6c55e6/0589911AC5097909F38E0FA5B772FEB220.127.116.11-twitter-honest-ads-act-letter.docx.pdf. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Winkelmann, Carolyn Hasenfratz. “Media Literacy and Interpreting Political Messages”. Carolyn Hasenfratz Design. 2019. www.chasenfratz.com/wp/political-ads-about-political-ads-and-trolling/. Accessed 25 March 2021.
Here is a link to my Pinterest Board Media Analysis:
I have this Pinterest board to help me keep track of sources. I started it when I started this degree. I’m in favor of transparency so I want people who read my articles and papers to see what sources I collected, and what I used and didn’t use. That tells you something about a piece, what was selected for use out of what was available. And if you are interested I hope you read the sources too!
In my social engineering class, I’m studying Russian social media advertising more and might write about the topic more on this blog. This week we have been assigned to read these three papers among other material:
The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018
The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency
Report of the Select Committee on Intelligence United States Senate on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election: Volume 2: Russia’s Use of Social Media, with Additional Views
As I read and work on my assignments, I may or may not find that some of what I wrote above is incomplete. This is a complex topic and if I run across anything I think I need to add or change, I’ll do that and make a note of it. In the meantime, I recommend that everyone read the same three papers I’m reading so you have more background on the issues. Media reporting on this topic is very poor and very confusing and seems mostly designed to obfuscate what happened instead of attempting to help people understand. Your understanding is likely to improve after reading and like me you might have a lot more questions as well. Enjoy!