On Thursday, May 10, Democrats in the U.S. Congress released the complete catalogue of Facebook and other social media ads developed by Russian agents to influence public opinion during the American election season in 2015 and 2016, and on into 2017.
The intent, as is almost always the case when revelations are made by only one party, is very likely political. By reminding everyone of the part played by the Russians in the election, they seek to counter the claims of President Trump and his Republican supporters that Mueller’s investigation is a “witch hunt” and “baseless”.
Their brand of help is the last thing Mueller needs. He’s progressing apace with an investigation which has already produced more charges and convictions in a shorter time frame than the Valerie Plame and the Whitewater / Vince Foster investigations. Continuing efforts by the Democrats to politicize the investigation merely add weight to the Republican assertion that the investigation is a political attack.
The release of the ads is helpful, however, in a way the Democrats didn’t intend. It reminds those reading the ads not to follow the Democrats.
Or the Republicans. Or any group or person, for that matter. In the current social setting, putting unconditional trust in something and merely following, rather than thinking about what is being proposed, is dangerous both for the follower and for everyone associated to them.
The release of all the ads includes summaries about them, such as which pages an ad posted on, who was targeted, how many people saw it, how many people clicked on it and how long the ad ran.
For example, one post from June 2016 targeted Facebook users in the Washington, DC, area who were age 16 to 53 and interested in Hillary Clinton or the Muslim Brotherhood. The Russians paid 3,981 rubles for it, or about $63. About 1,849 people saw the ad, and 94 ended up clicking on it.
Altogether, Russia-backed operatives spent up to $100,000 on all the ads.
As seen with the Cambridge Analytica story (CNBC), opinion makers have an ability to target data with social media which was previously unimaginable. This allows groups like C.A. to know exactly who is likely to be open to particular messages and share them with their social circles and allows groups like the Russian agents to craft ads designed to heighten reactions to particular messages. The combination is dangerously potent in opinion shaping.
A quick glance through the Russian ads shows that they were playing all sides of the field, trying to foment chaos and fuel anger at dissimilar groups. A more careful analysis reveals that some topics were shown to be used more often, indicating they were unusually effective. Black Lives Matter fans, for example, were perceived by the Russians to be particularly gullible and malleable; likewise, Sean Hannity fans.
The Russians were hoping to foment internal wars. It seems unwise to aid them in their efforts.