MEMES! The Russians Hacked Us With F*cking MEMES!
Hey Zucky, you got some splainin' to do! You too, @Jack and Sundar Pichai! Looks like executives at Facebook, Twitter and Google might have made one or two oopsies when they told senators that Russian social media ratfuckery was really NBD, whatevs in the 2016 election. The Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned two reports, both released this morning, detailing the extent of Russia's digital interference in our electoral process. Not to give the game away, but IT WAS BAD!
The first report, by Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Project, is a sober, clinical analysis of the ways the Russians fucked us in 2016 and continue to fuck us today. Long story short, the Russian troll farmers at the Internet Research Agency (IRA) did their damnedest to destroy Hillary Clinton and get Trump elected.
Differential messaging to [various discrete] target groups was designed to push and pull them in different ways. What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party—and specifically, Donald Trump. Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and rightwing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract, and ultimately discourage members from voting. While the IRA strategy was a long-term one, it is clear that activity between 2015 and 2016 was designed to benefit President Trump's campaign.
The second report is by the American cybersecurity firm New Knowledge, and it's much less clinical. They want those senators to understand exactly how the Russians hacked American democracy, and if they have spend 500 words explaining meme culture to an 80-year-old dude who thinks climate change is a hoax, then by God they'll do it. Taken together, the reports tell us (and the United States Senate) that Facebook's early insistence that we were just talking about Russians spending a handful of rubles on a couple Facebook ads that went nowhere was way off the mark.
How far off the mark? Well! Speaking of explaining meme culture to 80-year-olds, did Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg just forget that Facebook owns Instagram? Because they seem to have left out one or two pertinent details when they finally admitted in 2017 that 126 million people had seen Russian propaganda content on Facebook and the company had pro-actively taken down 120,000 posts on Instagram. Turns out, Instagram was where the real action was, with 187 MILLION ENGAGEMENTS on that platform alone.
Hey, remember that fun story about Sheryl Sandberg losing her shit in 2016 when she found out her staff was trying to root out Russian fuckery on Facebook, and then she sicced them on George Soros to deflect the blame? (((WE))) remember, Sheryl.
And speaking of targeting minorities, looks like the IRA's go-to play was to depress black turnout by gaining a foothold in African American digital communities, and then turning them into megaphones for anti-Hillary memes.
The most prolific IRA efforts on Facebook and Instagram specifically targeted Black American communities and appear to have been focused on developing Black audiences and recruiting Black Americans as assets. The IRA created an expansive cross-platform media mirage targeting the Black community, which shared and cross-promoted authentic Black media to create an immersive influence ecosystem. The IRA exploited the trust of their Page audiences to develop human assets, at least some of whom were not aware of the role they played. This tactic was substantially more pronounced on Black-targeted accounts. The degree of integration into authentic Black community media was not replicated in the otherwise Right-leaning or otherwise Left-leaning content.
Once in, the Russian trolls worked to discourage African Americans from showing up at the polls.
Despite statements from Twitter and Facebook debating whether it was possible to gauge whether voter suppression content was present, there were three primary variants of specific voter suppression narratives spread on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
Malicious misdirection (Twitter-based text-to-vote scams, tweets designed to create confusion about voting rules), Candidate support redirection ('vote for a 3rd party!'), [and] Turnout depression ('stay home on Election Day, your vote doesn't matter')[.]
Here's a table from New Knowledge describing the subject of IRA videos on YouTube, which is owned by Google.
So maybe when Google says, "These channels' videos were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population," they're being just a wee tiny bit disingenuous. We'll have a more complete rundown of the anti-black manipulation in a separate post, but here's a breakdown of IRA Facebook posts by topic.
SUBTLE. Hey, remember that time Trump campaign unshaved moron/digital guru Brad Parscale bragged about the campaign's voter suppression efforts, specifically including shoving Hillary Clinton's comments about "super-predators" at black people on social media? We are just reminded of that for some reason. (NO COLLUSION!)
Worse, the tech companies worked hard to get out of handing over the data to Senate investigators in any usable format. New Knowledge notes:
None of the platforms (Twitter, Facebook, and Alphabet) appears to have turned over complete sets of related data to SSCI. Some of what was turned over was in PDF form; other data sets contained extensive duplicates. Each lacked core components that would have provided a fuller and more actionable picture.
These reports will be fodder for 10,000 hours of hearings to come. There's a difference between knowing the Russians were screwing with social media generally, and seeing with specificity how memes were micro-targeted at specific groups.
Let's quickly note a couple of other strange tidbits. First, it looks suspiciously like the IRA had advance knowledge of Wikileaks's drops of hacked DNC emails and pushed Julian Assange memes in anticipation. (NO COLLUSION!)
Second, the IRA seems to have set up virtual storefronts, Jesus art and .... ads for gay sex toys?
Beyond promoting others' products, the IRA's own "merch" sites and products appeared in Instagram profile URLs as well as in their posts. Some of the merch, such as t-shirt sites for brand promotion, were similar to Facebook. Several of these t-shirt operations featured contentious political messaging likely designed to spark controversy in the real world. However, based on the image data provided there appear to have been other offerings unique to Instagram such as LGBT-positive sex toys and many variants of triptych and 5-panel artwork featuring traditionally conservative, patriotic themes. Merchandise perhaps provided the IRA with a source of revenue – we have no sales data.
Regardless, there are two other reasons to run merch sites: first, transactions enable the gathering of personal information: names, addresses, email address and phone numbers, potentially payment information. Second, time spent shopping on highly partisan sites could help identify committed audiences for Custom or Lookalike Facebook ad targeting.
Were they trying to collect personal information for ad-targeting, or were they seeking kompromat, you know, just in case they might need it at a later date?
Recruiting an asset by exploiting a personal vulnerability – usually a secret that would inspire shame or cause personal or financial harm if exposed – is a timeless espionage practice. So is the tactic of infiltrating protest movements. The IRA attempted both, even going so far as to create help hotlines for people struggling with sexual behavior, creating an opportunity to blackmail or manipulate these individuals in the future.
Wait ... what? So they're selling pro-LGBT boner toys ... and they're offering help to people "struggling with sexual behavior"? Jesus, these fuckers really did know exactly how to target Americans!
Haha. But for real, though.
One more weird thing! Look at this table of Facebook activity, showing spikes around election day and also a huge spike ... when Obama announced retaliatory sanctions against Russia for its election meddling, and Michael Flynn responded by telling the Russian ambassador not to worry about those sanctions? How odd! (NO COLLUSION.)
The Trump administration has spent two years screaming that there's no evidence that Russian fuckery changed a single vote. We guess we'll never know for sure, but based on the extent of this influence operation alone, we're going to go ahead and say with 100% certainty that Russian fuckery either changed votes or at the very least made Hillary Clinton votes stay home, which was really Trump's only path to the extraordinarily tiny "victory" he pulled off.
But there was definitely NO COLLUSION. You betcha.
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