America — what a country*! Only here can a foreign intelligence service invade virtual-social-life systems, attempt to manipulate public opinion, and get rich doing so. NBC’s Ken Dilanian reported this morning that Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election may not have made much of a political impact, but it did generate nearly a million bucks in revenue:
The effort by a Russian internet deception factory to manipulate American public opinion during the 2016 election was better planned and executed — and also more lucrative — than previously understood, according to a new analysis of nearly 10 million tweets by a leading cybersecurity firm.
The operation by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency amounted to “a vast, coordinated campaign that was incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages,” according to Symantec, which conducted an in-depth analysts of nearly 4,000 Twitter accounts involved in what U.S. intelligence agencies assess was a Russian-government–sponsored propaganda operation designed in part to help Donald Trump get elected president.
Some of the accounts were set up months in advance. And some of the trolls used their fake accounts to make money on the side, the researchers found, with one potentially generating nearly $1 million.
A million dollars for trolling people on social media? I’m in the wrong business, man. I wonder whether I can make a few hundred thousand trolling people over bad movies. #BattlefieldEarthRules #IshtarGotRobbed
It turns out, however, that the million-dollar troller wasn’t generating revenue for the Russians. The report from Symantec actually notes that these were “rogue accounts,” trolls using the IRA to make money for themselves. You just can’t find reliable employees for disinformation campaigns these days, alas.
NBC buried the lead on another Symantec conclusion, too. Dilanian writes that the operation was “designed in part to help Donald Trump get elected,” but Symantec actually discovered that the manipulation was more equitable than previously reported:
The research also found that the accounts played to both sides of the aisle more than previously believed, and that most of them were fakes pretending to be regional news outlets, while a smaller subset amplified those messages.
“The campaign directed propaganda at both sides of the liberal/conservative political divide in the U.S., in particular the more disaffected elements of both camps,” Symantec found.
All of this is interesting in an academic sense, but despite Dilanian’s lead and Symantec’s declaration, we still have no data at all on whether any of this had any impact on actual voting decisions. The Russians spent $25 million or so to generate 10 million tweets, which is a lot of money and an espionage operation that begs for a response and a defense; no one seriously disputes either.
However, it took place in the middle of a campaign in which around $2,000,000,000 was spent on messaging and voter outreach by campaigns, parties, and PACs. Just on that basis alone, the Russian effort was a drop in an ocean, not just a bucket, and on social media networks in which only a small part of the US population have anything but superficial engagement. To this day, not one entity has closed the loop by demonstrating that tweets and Facebook postings have any impact at all on voting decisions by Americans, let alone the scale of any such impact in comparison to TV ads, print ads, traditional GOTV methods, and so on.
From this vantage point, it still looks like the Russians wasted $25 million and only succeeded in pissing us off. And from Symantec’s description of their methods, that looks to be mainly what they wanted. The only people who are scoring off of this are the hysterics … and the one troll who scored a million bucks, of course. What a country, yeah?
* – Apologies to Yakov Smirnoff.