Don’t overestimate Russian attempts to sway election
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According to a federal indictment unveiled on Friday, Russians who pretended to be Americans while participating in online political discourse during the last few years committed a bunch of felonies. Whether they accomplished anything else of significance is by no means clear, notwithstanding all the scary talk about “information warfare” that supposedly undermined our democratic institutions and interfered with the electoral process.
The crimes described in the indictment, which names 13 Russians associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency in Saint Petersburg, include fraud and identity theft as well as violations of immigration law, campaign finance rules, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But everyone knows the real crime was, as Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch put it in Senate testimony last fall, conspiring to “sow division and discord” and “undermine our election process” by committing “an assault on democracy” that “violates all of our values.”
The New York Times, which last year breathlessly claimed that “Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics,” reports that Donald Trump’s “admirers and detractors” both agree with him that “the Russians intended to sow chaos” and “have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” A Times editorial assures skeptics that “the Russian subversion effort” was “sophisticated” and “breathtaking” in scope.
That analysis is at odds with the paper’s own reporting, which describes Russian trolls as “sloppy” and “amateurish” bumblers who sounded suspiciously like foreigners while posing as Americans, left a trail that made it easy to catch them, and produced crude propaganda that amounted to a drop in the raging river of online political speech. The only thing breathtaking about this influence campaign is the hyperventilation of the alarmists who talk as if we are just a few angry tweets from the abyss.
According to the indictment, the IRA 13 and their co-conspirators were so sophisticated that they had to learn the importance of targeting “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida” in the context of the presidential election from an activist “affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” They thought a $150 million donation to Hillary Clinton’s campaign from the conservative Bradley Foundation would be a plausible hoax, and they created a Facebook ad showing Satan arm wrestling Jesus while proclaiming, “If I win, Clinton wins.” It generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks.
The indictment makes much of the rallies instigated by IRA operatives but never says how many people participated in them. In 2016, the Times reports, “a dozen people” attended an IRA-orchestrated “Stop the Islamization of Texas” rally in Houston, while a simultaneous counterprotest, also organized by the Russians, attracted “a far larger crowd.” Two dozen?
The indictment says the IRA spent “thousands of U.S. dollars every month” on social media ads. That’s roughly one-millionth of the ad revenue that Facebook alone receives each month.
According to Facebook, ads bought by the IRA, most of which weighed in on contentious social issues rather than endorsing or opposing candidates, represented “four-thousandths of one percent (0.004 percent) of content in News Feed.” Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett testified in October that “the 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three-quarters of a percent (0.74 percent) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time.”
Richard Salgado, Google’s senior counsel on law enforcement and information security, testified that the company found 18 YouTube channels offering about 1,100 videos with political content that were “uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this [Russian] effort.” The videos, which totaled 43 hours on a platform where 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute and more than 1 billion hours are watched every day, “mostly had low view counts,” with less than 3 percent attracting more than 5,000 views.
Salgado nevertheless deemed the Russian content “a serious challenge to the integrity of our democracy.” If our democracy cannot survive another 43 hours of political videos on YouTube, it was already doomed.