The Russian fake news and propaganda attack using Facebook against American voters was far more successful and influential than investigators are currently aware — so successful that fake news stories and ads posted by Russia-linked Facebook accounts were shared hundreds of millions, likely billions of times, according to a research study released on Thursday by Columbia University.
Earlier this week, CNN and other media outlets reported that Russian accounts had purchased about 3,400 Facebook ads and specifically targeted swing states in the 2016 presidential election — singling out Michigan and Wisconsin in particular.
Donald Trump won Michigan by a mere 10,700 votes and Wisconsin by a slim 22,700 votes. The two states combined gave Trump 36 of the 270 Electoral College votes he needed to win the election. Had those electoral votes gone to Democrat Hillary Clinton, she would have won 268 electoral votes.
But Russian Facebook activity apparently had an even greater reach and influence on the election than the targeting of those two crucial states, the new study says. According to an account of the study’s findings in Thursday’s Washington Post, paid advertising was merely one small aspect of what now appears to be a vast Russian operation to brainwash the American electorate via Facebook and other social media platforms — an operation that the study’s author says proved quite successful.
In fact, Jonathan Albright of Columbia’s Tow Center For Digital Journalism — who conducted the statistical study — says that the Russian objective in much of their Facebook propaganda campaign was to persuade Americans not to vote at all.
“This is a concerted effort of manipulation,” Albright told The Post. “Based on the engagement and reach and the outcome of the election, I’d say it’s been fairly successful, sadly.”
Facebook says that it so far discovered 470 fake accounts that it traced to the St. Petersburg, Russia, digital propaganda bureau — sometimes referred to as a “troll farm” — known as the Internet Research Agency. Albright’s study looked at only a small sample of the accounts — six to be exact. Like most of the Russian accounts, those six appeared to advocate one way or the other on divisive issues such as race relations, immigration and gay rights. The accounts examined by Albright were: Blacktivists, United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Heart of Texas, Secured Borders and LGBT United.
Content from those six accounts alone, the study found, resulted in 340 million shares — with Albright defining a “share” as an appearance of a post in an individual Facebook feed. If those six accounts were representative of the 470 Russian fake accounts revealed by Facebook, then Russian-produced fake news and propaganda was seen by American voters billions or even hundreds of billions of times.
Many of the paid Facebook Russian advertisements are now in the hands on congressional investigators, but Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican, said on Wednesday that the ads would not be released to the public.
Some of the ads and fake Facebook content produced by Russia has been identified by news media outlets, however. On Thursday, Bloomberg News reported on five such Facebook ads that were designed to produce divisive effects on the American public.
They included ads falsely attributed to the anti-racism group Black Lives Matter, and targeted to audiences in Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Mississippi. The ads contained images of a black woman firing a rifle, and were intended to cause a phony impression that activists protesting police violence were advocating violence themselves.
Another ad created by the Russian propaganda agency and falsely attributed to “United Muslims” claimed that Hillary Clinton had confessed that the U.S. was the secret funding source behind terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda.
[Featured Images by Steven Senne/Alexei Nikolsky/AP Images]