Follow the Data
One year after the election, a few data points on the barrage of propaganda and disinformation utilized in the 2016 campaign is finally becoming available.
According to an Oxford University study of Twitter traffic during the campaign: “Voters in 11 swing states in last year’s presidential race received more fake, junk and hyper-partisan information over Twitter than reliable, professionally produced news in the 10 days before the election.” In three key states the researchers found “that fake and junk news constituted 40 percent of the sampled election-related tweets that went to Pennsylvanians, 34 percent to Michigan voters and 30 percent to those in Wisconsin;” states won by Trump with razor thin margins.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg initially dismissed the idea that his social media empire was used by the Russians to spread propaganda. But in October 2017, Facebook was hauled before the U.S. Senate’s Crime and Terrorism Subcommittee and issued new estimates that some 126 million people saw the fake news promulgated by Russian sources via Facebook. That is about half of the American electorate eligible to vote.
Twitter testified that it had identified 37,000 Russia-linked accounts, which tweeted 1.4 millions times in the months before the election, and Google testified that Russian agents uploaded more than 1,000 videos to YouTube using 18 channels. This is likely the tip of the iceberg. (You can access this testimony here.)
“I must say I don’t think you get it,” California Sen. Dianne Feinstein told the social media companies at the Senate hearing. “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change. What we’re talking about is the start of cyberwarfare.”
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top ranking democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, says that the Kremlin paid an army of more than 1,000 people to create fake anti-Hillary Clinton news stories targeting key swing states. Russia is also known to have used computer commands known as “bots” to dramatically heighten the reach of negative or fabricated news about Clinton. One research study indicated that one in five election related tweets were generated by bots.
This arsenal of fakery is not only being looked at by Congress. Multiple new reports indicate that the FBI and the Department of Justice are exploring whether the Trump campaign’s digital operation worked with Russia’s cyber operations to aid with voter targeting.
Although the results of these investigations may not be available for some time, what is clear is that in the era of social media “fake news” elevated on massive commercial platforms is emerging as a weapon of choice for sophisticated campaign and election operatives in the United States as well as overseas hostile powers seeking to interfere in elections.
And, as the first plea agreements are reached that shed light on the campaign’s conversations about the Russians, that multi-million-dollar fake news machine is already laying down fire in defense of a White House under investigation.