Go figure that the same team that had Hillary Clinton arm-wrestling Jesus would make Robert Mueller a bete noire as well. According to analyses submitted to Senate Intelligence Committee, Russian disinformation operatives took aim at Robert Mueller shortly after his appointment as special counsel. The intent was to undermine confidence in his investigation, but the Washington Post’s report has the same failure as yesterday’s — a lack of context:
Months after President Trump took office, Russia’s disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there.
The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. One post on Instagram — which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal — claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups.”
Such tactics exemplified how Russian teams ranged nimbly across social media platforms in a shrewd online influence operation aimed squarely at American voters. The effort started earlier than commonly understood and lasted longer while relying on the strengths of different sites to manipulate distinct slices of the electorate, according to a pair of comprehensive new reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee and released Monday.
There’s no denying that Russians (and possibly others) conduct disinformation campaigns in the US. Our enemies have lots of incentives to sow dissent and to undermine faith in our institutions. That didn’t start in 2016, however; it’s been going on for decades, running hotter or cooler depending on the global political situation. Russia, during its Soviet Union stage, spent a lot of time and money attempting to exploit divisions and paranoia in the US right up until its collapse.
There’s also no denying that social media makes that a lot easier. Before, it took word of mouth or access to a small number of media outlets to spread disinformation. These days, it can be done with a meme, and still fly largely under the radar. As one example of this, here’s a piece of actual news in this Post article from the reports coming to the Senate this week:
One unexpected star of the new reports Monday was Facebook’s photo-sharing subsidiary Instagram. Over the years of the disinformation campaign, Instagram generated responses on a scale beyond any of the others — with 187 million comments, likes and other user reactions, more than Twitter and Facebook combined.
But it had been the least scrutinized of the major platforms before this week as lawmakers, researchers and journalists focused more heavily on Facebook, Twitter and Google. Instagram’s use by the Russian teams more than doubled in the first six months after Trump’s election, the researchers found. It also offered access to a younger demographic and provided easy likes in a simple, engaging format.
More than two years later, we’re just finding out about this? That’s amazing in itself, but it raises a big question. If no one noticed this until now, how influential could it have been? That’s a serious question, and one that has gone unanswered in all of the hyperbole and moral panic that has arisen since the 2016 election. To this day, no one has even postulated a causative or even correlative relationship between social media memes and voting choices at any scope. There is literally no evidence at all that this disinformation campaign had any impact on the election in terms of voter choices or voter activity at all.
Even on a smaller scale, it’s tough to reach any conclusions about the information given here. We don’t even know from this article what the significance of 187 million Instagram comments might be. It’s bigger than 186 million, of course, and not as big as 188 million, but how does it stack up otherwise? How many of the comments were from the Russians themselves? How many legit Instagram users actually read any of these, let alone multiples of them? How many total Instagram comments and posts were there in the same period?
If the answer is 200 million, then it’s pretty significant. If the answer is 200 billion, then it’s a blip, just like the effort on Facebook and Twitter was. And just like the estimated $25 million spent by the Internet Research Agency was in light of the $2 billion spent by the presidential candidates, parties, and PACs in the presidential election. Throwing statistics on the wall might look impressive, but without context it means nothing.
The targeting of Mueller was entirely predictable for a hostile intel service in love with social-media disinformation operations. It’s cheap, he’s an easy target, and the special counsel is an innovation with a very bad record its various forms over the past five decades. It generates skepticism and suspicion for entirely legitimate reasons, even if the Russians clearly want to exploit those for their own purposes. There’s nothing wrong with pointing that out as long as it’s put in proper context — and not used to cast aspersions on those who offer legitimate criticism of the innovation and its use, in general and in specifics.