Facebook announced today that its internal investigation revealed fake Russian accounts bought at least $100,000 of political ads during the 2016 election season. But rather than push any particular candidate or position, the ads seemed designed to push us farther apart.
By now you're familiar with the news. Whether President Donald Trump was involved or not, and whether they actually affected the vote or not, it's very clear that Russian operatives took part in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in a number of ways, including hacking into the Democratic National Committee's emails, according to FBI, CIA, and NSA investigations.
Now it turns out, they also faked their way into using Facebook advertising. According to a statement published today on Facebook by Alex Stamos, the company's chief security officer:
In reviewing the ads buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017--associated with roughly 3,000 ads--that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies. Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.
Stamos goes on to say that the company has deactivated all of the accounts that were still active, because they violated the company's policy against inauthentic accounts. The company then went on to initiate a broader search for political ads coming from accounts that might be associated with Russia, for example accounts with U.S. IP addresses but with the language set to Russian. Facebook found another $50,000 worth of political advertising coming from accounts like these.
These do not appear to be fake accounts, and since they don't seem to have violated any laws or Facebook policies, the company does not appear to be taking any action against them. However, it is reporting its findings to the agencies currently investigating Russian tampering with U.S. politics.
What's most striking about this story is what the ads seemed intended to do. They didn't promote a particular cause or candidate--not even Donald Trump, who appears to have been the preferred candidate of Russian leadership. Instead, the ads seemed designed to sow discord and increase partisanship, perhaps revving up the weary-of-the-system sentiments that may have helped Trump with the election. Although Stamos did not identify any specific ads posted by the fake accounts, he did say this:
- The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn't specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate.
- Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum -- touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.
In other words, the very questions that seem to ignite the greatest controversies and animosities among Americans--and even led one to drive his car into a group of protestors in Charlottesville, Virginia. Do ordinary Americans have the right to bear arms, and if so what kinds should and shouldn't be allowed? Do homosexual and transgender people have the right to serve in the military and use a restroom that fits their self-identified gender? Should we welcome immigrants into our nation or bar them? Is racism still a factor in American life, and if so, what should we do about it?
These questions are all very likely to bring Americans with different viewpoints to violently disagree with one another, especially because they go right to our differing values: Inclusiveness vs. ensuring that every American who wants one has a decent job. Individual freedoms vs. biblical teaching. Whether it's fairer to let the past rest or give special preference based on race and gender to try and undo what centuries of racism and sexism have done.
That violent disagreement is exactly what any clever enemy of the U.S. would most want. More than anything else, the level of acrimony that has arisen among people of differing political viewpoints over the past year is astonishing and depressing. So much so that Arizona Senator John McCain, a longtime veteran of the Senate, rose from his sickbed and traveled to Washington to make a heartfelt speech against it. It may be the worse thing to come out of the 2016 election, although that level of animosity has been building for years and seems to have taken root in every political camp.
Facebook has had a big hand in making that happen, though probably not on purpose. Because anyone can post anything to the social network, and because Facebook has nearly 2 billion active users, it's a perfect place to post fake news and watch it spread rapidly. For example, a story that falsely claimed Pope Francis endorsed Trump for the presidency was shared more than a million times.
Worse, Facebook has likely worsened or maybe even created the "filter bubble" effect in which a growing number of us mostly or only hear news that reinforces the beliefs we already hold. That's because our Facebook friends are likely to have views similar to ours, and to share news that accords with our mutual beliefs. On top of that, Facebook uses what it can deduce about our political preferences to curate our news and serve us up items that fit those preferences. We're likelier to believe those items that reinforce what we already believe and reject those that challenge those beliefs because of the well-known human tendency toward "confirmation bias."
All of this would matter less if we were all tuning in to the nightly news or picking up the morning paper to get a more diversified look at the news of the day. But, increasingly, we aren't. In a survey earlier this year, 62 percent of respondents reported getting news from social media, with Facebook getting most of that news consumption. Only 20 percent of respondents who use social media for news also watch national TV news, and 30 percent watch local TV news.
Facebook is becoming our main news source, and it's serving us up a steady diet of exactly what we already believe, and what will make us angriest at our political opponents. Add in the Russian ads baiting us on hot-button topics, and we wind up with the kind of political climate we've all been living in for the past year or more. The kind where we spend more energy on outrage and mockery of our political rivals than anything else. Which benefits our enemies more than it does any of us.
Will it stay this way? I hope not. I hope we all start listening to McCain and the few other voices of reason telling us that our current take-no-prisoners approach to political disagreement is getting us nowhere fast. I hope we can tone down the rhetoric, make an effort to consume news that doesn't accord with the convictions we already hold, and find a way to at least respect the viewpoints we don't agree with. Either that, or a bunch of Russian hackers will wind up getting the last laugh.