Tags: russia | facebook | propaganda | election

Russia's Facebook Manipulation Echoes Past Propaganda Efforts

Russia's Facebook Manipulation Echoes Past Propaganda Efforts
With examples of Russian-created Facebook pages behind him, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) questions witnesses during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled "Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online" on Capitol Hill, October 31, 2017, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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Monday, 20 November 2017 05:09 PM Current | Bio | Archive

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into U.S. election manipulation by Russian “trolls” continues apace. This month, the committee has steadily been releasing samples of the adverts used to influence U.S. opinion in the run-up to the 2016 election and beyond.

Today, I want to take a look at some of the ads, and pull out some lessons from this campaign. Namely that it constituted a sophisticated and well-informed attempt to meddle in the U.S. elections; that the ads were phenomenally successful when compared to similar campaigns; that they make use of a propaganda paradigm that is well-established in Russia itself; and that such attacks are likely to continue, and to grow in size, in coming years.

The Facebook Ads

The amount of material released over the past few weeks has been quite difficult to keep up with, and in writing this article I’m indebted to the good people at TechCrunch, who’ve collected all of the ads into a sortable spreadsheet. (Take a look.)

What does this material tell us? Well, first it’s worth noting that the ads released represent just a tiny percentage of the total. Some 3,300 Facebook adverts were purchased by the Russian Internet Research Agency between June 2015 and August 2017, and combined these adverts reached 126 million Americans.

In some respects, the ads are precisely what you would expect. Many of them claim to come from religious or political groups on the right, and encourage people to vote for Trump. What’s interesting about these are that they work as “black propaganda.”

To explain: black propaganda is that which claims to originate from your own side. It was used extensively by the British in WW2, and can be very effective: if a recipient thinks that material is from their own commanders, or at least people who agree with them, they are much more likely to read, like, and re-post it.

Multi-Spectrum Warfare

The ads, however, were not just targeted at potential Trump supporters or at-home gun enthusiasts. A significant proportion were aimed at liberals, leftists, and members of the LGBT community.

Looking at the way that the ads were targeted is instructive in this regard. One of the promoted posts, for instance, advertised a protest against the Westboro Baptist Church, and claimed to come from a group called “LGBT United.” It was targeted at people who had selected Bernie Sanders, LGBT rights, LGBT community, Hillary Clinton, or same-sex marriage as their interests on Facebook.

This is interesting for a number of reasons, not least because it belies the narrative that has been built up in the liberal media: that the Russians wanted Trump elected, and helped get him the presidency. Rather, it seems that whoever is behind the attacks sought to increase conflict more generally, rather than exclusively promote one candidate.

This should not be surprising: it is a tactic that has been used in Russia itself for quite some time. In fact, the U.S. campaigns bear the indisputable signature of Vladislav Surkov, widely regarded as the mastermind behind modern Russia’s ongoing internal misinformation campaigns. In Russia, the state has taken the same approach to internal groups: anti-Putin organizations are funded alongside pro-Kremlin agitators; the remaining Communists get as much money as their fascist rivals.

The tactic, it seems, is less to promote a particular ideology, but instead to undermine trust in the media as a whole. Even if you oppose the regime, you can’t trust your own literature, because it might ultimately be state funded. No matter if you support Hillary or Trump, LGBT rights or the Border Wall, your information might come from Russia.

The Future

This has been an astonishingly successful tactic in Russia, and no less so in the U.S. The fact that the hack used Facebook actually helps analysts in this regard, because the company keeps detailed metrics on how many clicks each ad gets.

So what of the future? Well, the first thing to note is that the Select Committee is likely to release more information as the investigation continues. More generally, we can expect foreign meddling in elections to continue. Just this week, Freedom House, a U.S. NGO, released their annual Freedom on the Net report. They conclude that 30 countries now use “armies of opinion shapers” to affect the results of elections.

Sam Bocetta is a defense contractor for the U.S. Navy, a defense analyst, and a freelance journalist. He specializes in finding radical — and often heretical — solutions to "impossible"? ballistics problems. Through Lakeview Capital, he also cultivates funding for projects — usually naval, defense, and UAV startups. He writes about naval engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, marine ops, program management, defense contracting, export control, international commerce, patents, InfoSec, cryptography, cyberwarfare, and cyberdefense. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.

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The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into U.S. election manipulation by Russian “trolls” continues apace. This month, the committee has steadily been releasing samples of the adverts used to influence U.S. opinion in the run-up to the 2016 election and beyond.
russia, facebook, propaganda, election
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2017-09-20
Monday, 20 November 2017 05:09 PM
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