A frequent trollish participant on a friend’s Facebook page left this comment the other day:” Also we have yet for anyone to nail down exactly how Russia ‘interfered’ with our election. Some Russian computer geeks paid for some ads on Face Book? Really?”
So I asked him if he was ready to begin. He said yes. Here’s the text of what I wrote in a series of comments, gathered here in case anyone else needs a reference for a Sean Hannity viewer who does get that he just doesn’t get it.
What the Russians did was significantly more sophisticated and widespread than some computer geeks paying for a few Facebook ads. The Mueller report refers to it as “sweeping and systematic.” Its attack on our election wasn’t merely interference, but a violation of federal law. Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian businesses. At the center of the conspiracy was a Russian-based outfit called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which was funded by the Kremlin via a pass-through named Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a mobster/businessman and a longtime “associate of Vladimir Putin.” While there are other charges against some of the Russians, all of the Russians indicted were charged with Conspiracy to Defraud the United States. Russia has refused to extradite all of its citizens indicted by Mueller.
Mueller identified two primary types of Russian attacks on our election (I’ve included a third finding at the end of this thread). The first — an integrated social media campaign — got less attention in our 2016 news media than the second — the hacking and distribution of Democratic communications. There were two aspects to the social media attack. The first was “a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.” The second was “”provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States.” Mueller described the IRA campaign as “information warfare.”
Mueller documents the IRA tactic of creating fake social media accounts and groups, all of whom were Russians in St. Petersburg posing as Americans. Some of these groups were fake conservatives, like Tea Party News on Facebook, or TEN_GOV on Twitter, which purported to be the official Twitter of the Tennessee Republican Party. While “bots” were part of the plan, there were actual humans managing these accounts in Russia, spreading lies and misinformation to American voters on orders from the Kremlin. To provide some indication of their reach and influence, Mueller lists ReTweets of Russian disinformation by Sean Hannity, Roger Stone, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Flynn, both the Trump boys, and candidate Trump himself.
Russians may have been more effective on the other side of the operation, where they created accounts and groups that posed as black, Muslim and LGBTQ activists. Not only were these fake liberal groups useful when it came to ginning up Republican animosity toward “Democratic extremists,” they were extremely effective at suppressing the black vote for Clinton in strategically targeted swing state districts.
Mueller also revealed that the Russians issued an order in February 2016 to favor Bernie Sanders against Clinton, and conducted fake account participation in legitimate liberal groups aimed at stirring animosity between supporters of the two candidates. As someone who experienced the change of tone first hand, without understanding what was going on, let me just say anecdotally: It was as if what had been generally civil discussions became infested with outrage trolls and instigators overnight. Again, this is personal anecdote, not data, but we know people who became so radicalized against Clinton during this period that they skipped voting entirely in November.
And this is also exactly what happened in targeted black districts. In Michigan, for instance, black voter turnout in three black-majority Metro Detroit counties — home to more than 35 percent of the state’s voters — dropped anywhere from 5 percent to more than 10 percent (I can’t find the final tallies for the three counties, but overall black turnout in Michigan dropped by 12.5 percent. Trump won the state by fewer than 11k votes). Mueller spends less time documenting what caused that drop (Obama wasn’t on the ballot and Clinton was a lousy candidate, so why black voters stayed home is open to debate) and more on what Russians did to dissuade black voters from going out to vote for her.
Again, I’m departing from the Mueller summary here to discuss microtargeting. In 2015 I helped a lower division professional sports team set its all-time attendance record and increased walk-up ticket sales by something like … well, I forget the number, but it was somewhere in the 15 percent range. And I did it primarily by using the least sophisticated form of micro targeting available via Facebook. This cost the club so little that I was able to pay for the entire season campaign simply by not doing radio ads for one week. If you didn’t live in the specific ZIP codes I targeted, if you weren’t between the ages I targeted, if you didn’t list the interests I targeted, you didn’t see the ads I produced. For me, this meant I didn’t spend money on people who weren’t going to come to our games. But for political campaigns, there’s another aspect to microtargeting: If you’re only pushing ads to white Christian retirees in Lansing, or black ghetto residents in Flint, anyone who doesn’t fit that profile never sees the ads you’re producing. From a media perspective, even if a campaign was doing this legally, it means that reporters are unlikely to learn about lies and slanders in real time and expose them. That’s something everyone should care about, because it’s a new situation that’s cheap, powerful and ripe for abuse.
The Russians, of course, exploited the shit out of this.
So when you hear about $100,000 for 3,500 Facebook ads, I think it’s a mistake to compare that to ad buys for TV and radio. And when you think, well, so what, these are political ads… the actual Russian “ads” look NOTHING like traditional political ads. This is an online catalog of all the ads the Russians bought on Facebook. Chose the “Filter Ads By Category” button to see what kinds of shit the Russians pushed into our politics to set us against each other
The second aspect of the Russian attack was active measures to hack Democratic emails, etc., and push them into the media while concealing the Kremlin’s involvement. And I don’t think there’s much more to talk about there. Russian intelligence services — their cyberwarfare command, masked as “Guccifer 2.0” — hacked into Democratic accounts in search of bad press for Clinton, etc., and then released batches of them via Wikileaks. The timing of some of the releases — specifically the batch released within hours of the “Access Hollywood” tape (“grab ’em by the pussy”) was highly suspicious. And as you know “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” What you might not have heard is that Mueller also wrote that his investigation was “materially damaged” by witness lying, deleting their emails, using encryption devices and invoking the Fifth Amendment. Consequently, the investigation “was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with other known facts…The Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”
Mueller’s report also documents a third level of the attack, but pays less attention to it. Russia’s intel/cyberwarfare command, the GRU, hacked into “U.S. state and local entities, such as state boards of elections (SBOEs), secretaries of state, and county governments, as well as individuals who worked for those entities.The GRU also targeted private technology firms responsible for manufacturing and administering election-related software and hardware, such as voter registration software and electronic polling stations.”
In other words, Russian agents showed an interest in more than merely turning us against each other, suppressing Democratic turnout and helping elect Trump. They — at a minimum — attempted to identify vulnerabilities that would allow them to change electronic vote tallies, including election systems that have no paper trail. Did they do more than that? Who knows?
There’s a lot more, obviously, but that’s the outline of the problem. Our President keeps saying stuff like “Putin said he didn’t do it,” which is truly alarming, but even if you give Trump the benefit of the doubt (which I don’t — I’m up front about my biases) and assume that he’s downplaying the Russian attack because he’s got a sensitive ego and doesn’t like people questioning whether he was legitimately elected, the effect is the same. But if you believe Mitch McConnell’s claim that the cyber security bill he refuses to allow a vote is redundant, that everything in the bill is already covered by existing law, you’re simply incorrect.
In summary, knowing what I know now about the Russian attack on our nation, I’d be demanding action EVEN IF THE TABLES WERE TURNED AND THEY’D SUPPORTED CLINTON. And now that you have access to this knowledge, I expect you’ll change your mind and join me in calling for Mitch McConnell and the White House to drop their opposition to EVEN HOLDING A DEBATE IN THE SENATE on election security. Right?