The Russia operation has been discussed almost exclusively in terms of Donald Trump, but it did not start out that way. According to the indictment, it began in May 2014 with “the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
The indictment says three of the Russian defendants traveled to the U.S. to “collect intelligence for their interference operations.” That didn’t seem to be a Trump-specific operation; one trip, a three-week visit, was in June 2014, the other, a four-day visit, was in November of the same year.
The group’s work was done through social media — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. Most of it consisted of buying ads or posting messages and keeping track of their spread through the social media world.
The indictment quotes an unspecified Russian document saying the job was to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.” That involved focusing on angry fringes and hot-button issues: immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement, religion.
When attention turned to the 2016 race, the Russians “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.”
Again, not Trump-specific. The goal seemed always to mess with Hillary Clinton, the presumed favorite to win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency. Everything else was improvised.
The intensified focus on Trump came, not surprisingly, as Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee to challenge Clinton.
“From at least April 2016 through November 2016,” the indictment says, “defendants and their co-conspirators, while concealing their Russian identities and organization affiliation through false personas, began to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.”
There’s no evidence the Russians thought Trump had a chance to win, just like no U.S. political experts thought Trump had a chance to win. The goal was to harass Clinton — candidate Clinton and then President Clinton — with a modern, social-media version of old-fashioned Soviet disinformation campaigns.
The indictment is vague on what the Russians spent. It says that by September 2016, nearly the end of the campaign, the operation spent about $1.25 million a month. But in terms of what the Russians paid for social media ads, the indictment just says “thousands” of dollars every month.
The sums are rounding errors in a race in which the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent a combined $2.4 billion.
Facebook officials gave more details in statements and testimony before the Senate and House intelligence committees a few months ago. First, Facebook said the Russian operation bought about 3,000 ads, spending about $100,000 on Facebook and Instagram combined. That is compared to about $81 million the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent on Facebook and Instagram combined.
Facebook estimated about 11 million people saw at least one of the ads between 2015 and 2017. But that wasn’t all before the election. Facebook said that of ad “impressions” — that is, how many times an ad appeared on screen in a person’s news feed — just 44 percent came before the election, while 56 percent came after the election.
About 25 percent of the ads were never seen by anyone, Facebook said. And of the total ads, “The vast majority…didn’t specifically reference the U.S. presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.”
Looking at key states, the total spent on ads targeting Wisconsin was $1,979, according to Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr. Ad spending in Michigan was $823. In Pennsylvania, it was $300.
That is not the stuff of rigging elections.
Of course, Facebook is more than ads; the vast majority of the material on it is so-called organic content, produced by the people who use Facebook. The company estimates that a total of around 150 million people may have been “served content” from a page associated with the Russians during the two-year period before and after the election. That means that some Russian-produced content was visible on news feeds — not that Facebook users necessarily saw it or engaged with it.
“This equals about four-thousands of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Facebook executive Colin Stretch said in prepared testimony before the Senate last November.
The indictment says Russians used the fake Facebook accounts they created to team with unwitting Americans to stage a few real-world, pro-Trump events in Florida, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. A few days after the election, the Russians staged two rallies in New York — one to support the president-elect and another headlined “Trump is NOT my President.” It was the original Russian goal of disruption applied to new — and very unexpected — circumstances.
All Americans should be grateful that the Mueller team has gone after the Russian interference project. Russia needs to be prevented from doing it again, and also not allowed to get better at it.
But that doesn’t mean the Russian interference outlined in the new indictment amounted to a lot. It didn’t.
And it is something that can be combated in a variety of ways. Facebook already reports much progress in detecting and eliminating fake accounts, which is precisely what the Russians relied on. The company, and other social media platforms, will likely make more improvements in the future.
And, despite much speculation that President Trump is doing nothing to prevent future Russian efforts, there seems little doubt the U.S. intelligence community is working on counter-measures and is already in a better position to combat interference than in the last election.
Of course, there’s more to the 2016 Russian effort than the conduct outlined in the new indictment. The charges do not cover, for example, the Russian hacks of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, which could become the subject of future indictments.
So there is more to learn. But as far as the new indictment is concerned, there is good reason to stay calm. It’s not Pearl Harbor, in any way, shape, or form.
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