On Wednesday two separate reports revealed further details of what we already know to be true: Russia weaponized social media to exacerbate the already present political fissures in the U.S. However the lengths to which Russia deployed social media a divisive tool have only just begun to be fully realized — as demonstrated by reports from The New York Times and CNN.
By Facebook’s own admission, Russian emissaries linked to the Kremlin purchased ads through the social media giant that were distinctly thematic: between June 2015 and May 2017, a Kremlin-connected company purchased 3,000 ads that focused on race, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and immigration. These ads weren’t political in the sense that they advocated for candidates, but they were intended to polarize voters and stoke anxieties that persist in American culture. And, as it turns out, the Russian-bought ads were also distinctly targeted — in places where racial discord remains acutely concentrated.
According to CNN, one of the ads purchased during the 2016 election referenced Black Lives Matter and was targeted to audiences in Baltimore, MD, and Ferguson, MO — two cities where police brutality have precipitated (sometimes violent) demonstrations. The Internet Research Agency, an ingeniously named Kremlin-associated troll farm, purchased the ads and ensured that they contained just enough details to be viewed favorably from either end of the political spectrum:
The Black Lives Matter ad appeared on Facebook at some point in late 2015 or early 2016, the sources said. The sources said it appears the ad was meant to appear both as supporting Black Lives Matter but also could be seen as portraying the group as threatening to some residents of Baltimore and Ferguson.
What’s so shocking about CNN’s disclosure is how damn simple the entire scheme is. Baltimore and Ferguson undoubtedly typify the racial injustice and inequality that runs rampant across America, making them the perfect exploitable targets for a foreign government hoping to wedge Americans further apart — and this effort has continued throughout Trump’s presidency.
The New York Times reported that an overwhelming number of Russian troll bots, who pose as Americans, were arguably more influential in the 2016 election than Facebook ads. And they continue to be: since Trump launched another front in his culture war, this time against the NFL, hundreds of Russian bots have flooded Twitter with opposing messages about the players’ protest.
From The Times:
Since last month, researchers at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan initiative of the German Marshall Fund, a public policy research group in Washington, have been publicly tracking 600 Twitter accounts — human users and suspected bots alike — they have linked to Russian influence operations. Those were the accounts pushing the opposing messages on the N.F.L. and the national anthem.
Again, the simplicity with which a goal of insurmountable division between Americans has been accomplished is astounding. While social media parades as an authentic window into any given user’s life, it is inherently anonymous. You can be anyone you want to be, or a Russian agent can be hundreds of people at the same time, with conflicting views, and stock photos as proof of life.
Executives from both Facebook and Twitter have been asked to publicly testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee in its investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Representatives from Twitter are expected to privately brief the Committee on Thursday. However Russian bots continue to be a disruptive force in American culture on Twitter, a problem that did not end after the 2016 election and one that must be addressed. Facebook, too, must answer for Russian trolls whose accounts have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers and continue to wreak political havoc well past the election.