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Did Russian Facebook Ads Actually Have Any Effect On The 2016 Presidential Election?

ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

  • Russian ad buys accounted for .0015% of total election spending
  • Many of the Russian social media operations do not seem to have helped Trump in any meaningful way
  • Evidence that voters who viewed Russian-backed ads switched their votes because they were exposed to them is scarce

Before there was Russian meddling in the 2016 election, there was Russian meddling in Texas secession. The Facebook page “Heart of Texas,” which picked up a following of several hundred thousand before it was banned by the social media network, attempted to cross over into real-world organizing, with a series of #Texit rallies across the state.

What happened? Only a few dozen people showed up.

The Texas secession debacle is a reason for caution when making claims about the real-world political influence of fake news and Facebook advertising: The impact might be smaller than you think.

The idea that Russian digital ad-buying changed the results of the election is belied by evidence and, at any rate, impossible to prove. That has not stopped some from attempting to do so through polling experiments and other types of research.

“You can definitively say it affected the election,” Peter Singer, author of “LikeWar: The Weaponization Of Social Media,” said. “You need a time machine to say it swayed the election.”

Yet if Russian Facebook ads did affect the election, it probably wasn’t by very much. According to Facebook, Russian agents purchased 3,500 ads for $100,000 from Facebook and Instagram. In an election that cost in total $6.5 billion, Russian ads accounted for .0015% of total election spending.

The House Intelligence Committee noted that, through the 3,500 ads purchased by Russia, more than 11.4 million U.S. users were exposed to such ads, and more than 126 million could have been exposed to “organic content” between 2015 and 2017 published by pages owned by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) — a Russian “troll farm,” or a state-sponsored, anonymous online-news brigade. (RELATED: The Prospective Dangers Of Twitter’s New False-Information Flagging Tool)

“This equals about four-thousands of one percent (0.004%) of content [that appears on a user’s] News Feed, or approximately one out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Facebook executive Colin Stretch said during his testimony in Nov. 2017.

Facebook estimates 56% of those ads were shown after elections already took place; 44% were shown before Nov. 6, 2016. Off all the ads sold, 25% were never displayed to anyone due to Facebook’s algorithms that try to connect ads with users’ trending interests. The phrases “shown” and “exposed to” do not mean users clicked on, engaged in or even saw such posts. It’s difficult to tell how exactly Facebook measures viewer numbers on image advertisements.

“Facebook did conduct research on what it calls ‘civic engagement’ during the election period,” investigative journalist and author Gareth Porter wrote late last year. “And the researchers concluded that the ‘reach’ of the content shared by what they called ‘fake amplifiers’ was ‘marginal compared to the volume of civic content shared during the U.S. elections.’  That reach, they said, was ‘statistically very small’ in relation to ‘overall engagement on political issues.'”

Of the total 3,500 ads, “fewer than 300,” or 9%, targeted swing states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Hampshire and so on, that ultimately determined the outcome of the 2016 election, according to a report from the Huffington Post.

“The vast majority of the 277 swing state ads purchased by the Russian agency were about non-electoral issues, including police violence, racism, LGBTQ rights, immigration and Islamophobia. Many of them centered on themes of the Black Lives Matter movement,” HuffPo explained.

Behind The Fake News

A closer analysis of the actual content of the Russian ad buys shows a mix of content, not strongly biased in any particular direction. This is consistent with claims that the purpose of Russian interference was to sow chaos, rather than to put the thumb on the scale for Trump.

The ads expressed support for and opposition to then-candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and more. They also covered a variety of issues from immigration to LGBTQ rights to strengthening black communities, many of which appeared to mimic popular images and memes that get shared on U.S. social media accounts.

In other words, only a small portion could be construed as supporting Trump, and the content was not easily distinguishable from other content commonly shared by non-foreign actors.

BeingPatriotic Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

BeingPatriotic Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

In December and January of 2016/17, Ohio State University conducted a study examining the impact that “fake news stories” had on the 2016 election. Using a nationwide internet survey of 585 people who voted for Obama in 2012, the study found that “fake news most likely did have a substantial impact on the voting decisions.”

It is difficult, however, to disentangle what exactly caused the large number of voters in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania to switch their vote from Democrat to Republican. The Ohio State researchers admit that “we cannot prove that belief in fake news ’caused’ these former Obama voters to defect from the Democratic candidate in 2016.”

Singer, who references the Ohio State conclusions in his book, explained that Russian ads and fake accounts affected the election mostly through its ripple effect on other types of media: “Over 90% of journalists use social media to determine everything from stories to perspectives … what’s happening online effects everything from newspaper coverage to cable news to radio talk shows … one of the things that’s lesser understood is the ripple effect on media.”

“Social media is not like Vegas,” he said. “What happens on social media does not stay on social media.”

UnitedMuslimsOfAmerica Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

UnitedMuslimsOfAmerica Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

That may be true, but if so, then a causal link between fake news and election results is nearly impossible to identify. And to focus on it may be to absolve the Democratic Party of making the mistake of nominating someone unpopular in the rust belt states that Obama was able to lock down.

The Life Of A Russian Sock Puppet

One example of a fake Twitter account operated by the Russians operated under the name of “Jenna Abrams,” which Singer made reference to in conversation with The Daily Caller. The account with 70,000 followers was owned by a Russian official based in St. Petersburg, who posed as a sassy, right-wing American woman that tweeted on every topic from a nude photo of Kim Kardashian to Trump’s position on immigration.

Jenna Abrams/ NBC News/ YouTube

Jenna Abrams/ NBC News/ YouTube

Abrams’ posts were included in stories published by The New York Times, BBC, The Huffington Post, ESPN, USA Today, The Telegraph, Fox News, Mashable, InfoWars, Word Report, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, CNN, BET, DailyDot, Face 24, Breitbart, IJR, The Independent, New York Daily News, The Observer, Refinery 29, US News, Yahoo Sports and more. Her posts were also embedded in two posts published by The Daily Caller.

A number of the above news outlets have since deleted evidence that they cited Abrams, though some posts are still live. The Huffington Post cites an Abrams tweet that reads, “New Sanctuary City Signs Erected In Malibu,” in a post titled, “This Malibu ‘Official Sanctuary City’ Sign Is Not Quite What It Seems.”

A USA Today article cites Abrams’ tweet about Kim Kardashian’s nude photo, calling Abrams a “problem solver.” Buzzfeed included an Abrams tweet that reads, “Putin explaining to Angela Merkel how ballistic missiles work,” in a post titled, “Please Enjoy Angela Merkel, Chancellor Of Sass, Rolling Her Eyes At Vladimir Putin.”

A CNN article titled, “‘Black Olives Matter’: Just a Joke or Real Disrespect?” includes an Abrams tweet that reads, “Everytime Black Olives Matter is trending Green Olives start rioting.”

The list goes on. (RELATED: New Senate Report Shines Light On Extent Of Russia’s Election Year Trolling)

Singer explains that if Abrams and other Russian-backed accounts had not been revealed, the “media wouldn’t have changed its practices. Facebook’s cybersecurity team wasn’t looking for this kind of activity in 2016; they weren’t looking for foreign governments trying to pose as U.S. personas trying to influence elections. The U.S. intelligence system and cyber command were really doing nothing in this space in 2016.”

 

LGBTQ Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

LGBTQ Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

Whether or not cyber command should be involved in policing Russian trolls posing as attractive young women and posting about Kim Kardashian, a few lessons are worth learning from the Jenna Abrams affair. One is that, of all the influence operations being waged in the United States, this one seems relatively benign. Second, this account was boosted all across the media, not just by conspiracy theorists.

The Fallout

Almost exactly one year after President Donald Trump was elected into office starting on Oct. 31, 2017, tech giants Google, Facebook and Twitter attended three public congressional hearings to discuss Russian election interference. During this time, Facebook decided to share the Russian ads posted shared on their platform with the American public.

“In an election where a total of about 115,000 votes would have changed the outcome, can you say that the false and misleading propaganda people saw on … Facebook didn’t have an impact on the election?” asked Democratic Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono during the 2017 hearing.

“We’re not well positioned to know why any one person or an entire electorate voted the way that it did,” Facebook general counsel Colin Strech responded.

“Yet, the Russian content was just a tiny share of the 33 trillion posts Americans saw in their Facebook news feeds between 2015 and 2017,” political strategist and Patrick Ruffini wrote in an article published by The Washington Post. He explained:

… With $81 million spent on Facebook by the Trump and Clinton campaigns, mostly to mobilize core supporters to donate and volunteer, a low-six-figure buy is unlikely to have tipped the election. The Russian effort looks even less influential when one considers the tiny amount of Russian Facebook spending directed at key battleground states — $1,979 in Wisconsin, $823 in Michigan and $300 in Pennsylvania.

… Of course, some people did click and like and share. Where Russia appears to have made more headway — before and after the election — is in further animating partisans, capitalizing on their need to have their existing beliefs confirmed.

The Mueller Report explains that the Russian “specialists” who were indicted wanted to spark “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.”

The report also says, however, that once the 2016 elections took over the media spotlight, these specialists “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

Ruffini points out that “at least in some cases,” Russian attempts to interfere worked — the most successful attempt being the organization of an anti-Trump rally in New York City five days after the election that attracted thousands of participants.

He also notes that one of the most successful advertisements came from a popular Russian-backed Facebook page — also noted in the New Yorker article — called “Blacktivists,” which showed a young boy named Royce Mann performing a spoken-word poem about white supremacy and the Black Lives Matter movement. These hardly amount to pro-Trump propaganda.

W&K Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

W&K Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

Since releasing this data and appearing in Congress, Facebook and other tech giants have taken large steps to try and eliminate not only foreign interference but any kind of hate speech or inappropriate conduct, as well.

“We strongly believe in free and fair elections,” Facebook wrote in a statement posted before in October 2017 before its initial hearings. “We strongly believe in free speech and robust public debate. We strongly believe free speech and free elections depend upon each other. We’re fast developing both standards and greater safeguards against malicious and illegal interference on our platform.”

BlackMatters Ad/ House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

House Permanent Select Committee On Intelligence archives

The Crimes

In 2018, 13 Russians were indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for posing as U.S. personas online and attempting to interfere with U.S. politics through targeted advertisements and fake accounts. Department of Justice investigators claim that this began in 2014, when the Obama administration first became aware of such activity. (RELATED: Democrats Defend Obama Admin’s Efforts To Stop Russia Meddling In 2016 Election)

“These social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016,” Mueller’s statement to Congress in February 2018 read.

In September 2018, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker wrote an article titled, “How Russia Helped Sway The Election For Trump,” which argues that the ads not only influenced the election but helped President Donald Trump win. The article cites a book titled “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania.

Jamieson argues that “if everything else was a constant,” then “it’s likely” Trump would not have won the 2016 election.

The New Yorker article says Jamieson concludes in her book that “the Russian saboteurs nimbly amplified Trump’s divisive rhetoric on immigrants, minorities, and Muslims, among other signature topics and targeted constituencies that he needed to reach.” But her argument does not provide concrete evidence that a significant number of voters would have voted differently without Russian interference.

To say definitively that “Russia Helped Sway The Election For Trump,” as the New Yorker claimed and has been suggested by liberal partisans, would be quite a stretch.