Russian agents used Facebook and YouTube to sow division prior to the 2016 election

The big social media companies are scheduled to give congressional testimony this week about the abuse of their platforms by Russian agents. Reuters got an advance look at written testimony Facebook will provide which suggests as many as 126 million people may have seen Russian posts on the site between 2015 and 2017:

Facebook Inc said on Monday that Russia-based operatives published about 80,000 posts on the social network over a two-year period in an effort to sway U.S. politics and that about 126 million Americans may have seen the posts during that time…

Facebook’s general counsel, Colin Stretch, said in the written testimony that the 80,000 posts from Russia’s Internet Research Agency were a tiny fraction of content on Facebook, equal to one out of 23,000 posts…

The 80,000 posts were published between June 2015 and August 2017. Most of them focused on divisive social and political messages such as race relations and gun rights, Facebook said.

One out of 23,000 is a very small percentage of Facebook’s traffic. Facebook is continuing to roll out a new system which will allow people viewing a page to see any ads that page is running “whether or not the person viewing is in the intended target audience for the ad.” In addition, the company will require political advertisers to verify their identity:

As Joel Kaplan mentioned, we’re going to require more thorough documentation from advertisers who want to run election-related ads. We are starting with federal elections in the US, and will progress from there to additional contests and elections in other countries and jurisdictions. As part of the documentation process, advertisers may be required to identify that they are running election-related advertising and verify both their entity and location.

That sounds like a reasonable precaution but as noted above most of the advertisements posted by Russia were not political ads per se, but issues related ads dealing with race, sexual orientation, gun rights and other hot-button issues. And even then, Facebook has said that many of the ads it has identified would not have been prevented from running on the site based on content alone:

We require authenticity regardless of location. If Americans conducted a coordinated, inauthentic operation — as the Russian organization did in this case — we would take their ads down, too.

However, many of these ads did not violate our content policies. That means that for most of them, if they had been run by authentic individuals, anywhere, they could have remained on the platform.

Meanwhile, the NY Times reports that Russian agents also made use of Google’s YouTube:

Google, in a prepared statement, said it had also found evidence that the Internet Research Agency bought ads on its services and created YouTube channels to upload short videos about divisive social issues including law enforcement, race relations or Syria. This replicated the efforts found on Twitter and Facebook to foment societal division with hot-button topics.

Google said it had found 18 channels that were “likely associated” with the Russian agents that posted political videos to YouTube. All told, those accounts — now suspended — uploaded more than 1,100 videos totaling 43 hours of content from 2015 through the summer of 2017. Google said, in general, those videos had very low view counts; only three percent of the videos had more than 5,000 views and there was no evidence that the accounts had targeted American viewers.

This seems to have been a Russian government-run campaign intended to attack American democracy in a more general way by emphasizing social division. It’s the same sort of approach Russia’s RT television network has been using for years now. I’m all for shutting down Russian propaganda but much of the division Russia was trying to exploit pre-exists their efforts by decades. Getting rid of the small percentage of Facebook posts or YouTube clips isn’t going to make those divisions go away.