The revelations by Facebook and Twitter this week that Russian government-linked companies and other suspicious foreigners bought advertising during the 2016 presidential campaign to promote fake news sites that were for the most part designed to attack Hillary Clinton and as a side benefit help Donald Trump provides new insight into a secret war that weaponized American social media as a vicious propaganda tool.
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Mark Warner, left his hearing this morning and told the press that the Facebook ad sales were only the “tip of the iceberg” when it came to the Russian information warfare campaign, and accused Facebook of misleading him when he asked them these questions several months ago.
“It appeared to me that the very social media sites that we rely on for virtually everything — our Facebooks, Googles and Twitters — it was my belief the Russians were using those sites to intervene in our elections. And the first reaction from Facebook was: ‘Well you’re crazy, there’s nothing going on’ — well, we find yesterday there actually was something going on.”
And the first reaction from Facebook was: ‘Well you’re crazy, there’s nothing going on’ — well, we find yesterday there actually was something going on.”
I think it really raises a series of questions about a number of social media firms — and we’ve got to talk to Twitter as well — about making clearer about public disclosure. I think the public needs to know what kind of misinformation and disinformation might be appearing on their Facebook news feed or their Twitter news feed.”
Warner has also said the Senate Intelligence Committee wants to know how these unsophisticated Russian and other foreign players knew exactly which city, state, and race to target, which may lead to links to Americans who were helping them find targets.
Until now a lot of the focus has been on how Russians and their surrogates in Eastern Europe hacked into American political and official accounts, but now new information is coming out about how they then used that information to mount a wide-ranging misinformation campaign through social media networks.
“Far less splashy,” reports the New York Times, “and far more difficult to trace, was Russia’s experimentation on Facebook and Twitter, the American companies that essentially invented the tools of social media, and in this case, did not stop them from being turned into engines of deception and propaganda.”
This experimentation that grew in size and sophistication throughout the campaign did not take one form, but rather led to many different approaches and efforts.
Some of the Facebook accounts were made up using fake names like Melvin Redick, Katherine Fulton, and Alice Donavan, often accompanied by fake home towns, fake educational backgrounds, and fake work histories.
Their Facebook pages were used to direct “friends” to other news sites that contained hacked information and horrid stories that were completely made up just to pump up the volume of noise, usually around Secretary Clinton.
NEWS: Russian Facebook ads urged ppl to Like certain groups, plug in to news pushed by those groups, Warner says of FB briefing
— Tom LoBianco (@tomlobianco) September 7, 2017
In some cases, the Facebook pages or Twitter accounts were brand new. In other cases, they were purchased on the Dark Web or from Russian sources that specialize in recycling existing sites. In other cases, they would ferret out existing pages or websites that were no longer being used, which they took over and renamed.
While the Russians have been coy about their role, it is clear that the hand of Putin and his gang were behind many of the devious hackers. However, there was also an economic interest. A teenager in Eastern Europe, for instance, made up endless fake stories about Secretary Clinton to get clicks, and then made $16,000 in a short period from Facebook thanks to ad referrals and buys that resulted.
When the teen was asked why he attacked Secretary Clinton and not Trump, he said that Trump fans were more likely to believe any crazy rumor and then share it widely, which made what he was doing that much more lucrative.
While Facebook made some efforts to at least verify the account holders were real people – which led them to ultimately drop Redick, Fulton, and Donovan, among others – Twitter seems to have been more like the wild west of social media.
Twitter allows people to create accounts using fake names or identifies, and also made only weak efforts to combat the use of “bots” – automated, computerized systems that spewed out pre-programmed content that could be frequently changed to lists of people.
The New York Times joined with FireEye to do a detailed investigation of the use of social media by hackers.
“Investigators for FireEye spent months reviewing Twitter accounts associated with certain online personas,” reports the New York Times, “posting as activists, that seemed to show the Russian hand: DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, Anonymous Poland and several others.”
“FireEye concluded that they were associated with one another and with Russian hacking groups,” continues the NY Times, “including APT28 or Fancy Bear, which American intelligence blames for the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails.”
FireEye also found patterns that pointed to the use of “bots.”
“The researchers discovered long lists of bot accounts that sent out identical messages within seconds or minutes or one another,” reports the NYT, “firing in alphabetical order.”
The researchers coined the term ‘warlists’ for them. On Election Day, one such list cited leaks for Anonymous Poland in more than 1,700 tweets.”
The tweets sent out on the “warlists” often targeted people they wanted to pay attention – including news organizations, journalists, government agencies, and politicians – especially @realDonaldTrump.
“By targeting such opinion-shapers,” Lee Foster, who heads the FireEye team told the NY Times, “the creators of the warlists clearly wanted to stir up conversation about the leaked materials.”
Trump received more direct “replies” than anyone else, so it is absurd to think he had no idea what was happening. Rather, he saw it happening and at the least was passive in his acceptance because he must have known it was helpful to him.
J.M. Berger, a researcher in Cambridge, Mass, who built a public web “dashboard” for the Alliance for Securing Democracy to track suspect Twitter accounts, told the NY Times many had suspected of links to Russia, and virtually all went after Trump.
“Clearly,” says Berger, “this was an effort to influence Donald Trump. They know he reads tweets.”
In many cases, it should have been obvious to any English-speaker, even Trump, that there was something suspicious because of their lack of sophistication. “They are not always Americanophiles who know every nuance of U.S. politics or grammar,” says Foster.
in other cases, the Russian efforts were boosted by willing collaborators who did speak English as a first language.
Marilyn Justice, a 66-year-old woman in Nova Scotia, Canada who tweets as @mkj951, told the NY Times she became a fan of Putin’s during the 2014 Winter Olympics and became disturbed by what she perceived to be “snide” coverage with an anti-Russia bias. She laughed at the idea she had any pro-Kremlin bias.
“Hillary’s a warmonger,” Justice said in an interview, adding in regard to Putin, “I think he’s very patient in the face of provocations.”
The nature of a democracy is that it does not demand the same level of disclosure and visibility for things like radio and TV ads that an authoritarian regime would demand, Alex Howard, deputy director of the Sunlight Foundation, told BuzzFeed.
Howard said that makes it possible for these scurrilous players create highly targeted online ads that can be “weaponized against liberal democracies.”
“It removes our ability to have transparency into who is trying to influence our politics and any accountability for that influence,” says Howard.
It may have benefited Trump in this election, but there is no way to know who Putin and his pals may decide is their friend and who is their enemy in the next election.
Or Putin and company may just want to cause chaos in our democracy while Russia and other authoritarian regimes take advantage of the problems and opportunities that create for them.
As the probes into the Russian hacking of the 2016 election, and the role Trump and his campaign played, continue to dig deeper, there will be new information on how this all happened. It is time for the American Congress, on both sides of the aisle, to get serious about creating new laws, rules and safety checks so that this can’t happen again in the future.