In these days of fake news, it's getting more difficult to figure out who's actually telling the truth -- and who's not. Was that ad really placed by a company that we know and trust, and was that post actually written by the person whose name is attached to it? Does that person even really exist?
It definitely came as a surprise, then, when Facebook recently announced that an estimated 126 million Americans -- about a third of the country's population -- had been shown Russian-supported ads, posts, and other content on the massive social network during the 2016 election season. Not only that, but according to the New York Times, Russian agents uploaded more than 1,000 videos to YouTube, and posted approximately 120,000 photos, memes, and other content on Instagram.
Why? According to the Times article, "to sow discord among American citizens."
By all accounts, these ads, messages, and posts achieved this goal -- and perhaps much more. According to an article in The Washington Post,
"As a group, the ads made visceral appeals to voters upset about illegal immigration, black political activism, the declining economic fortunes of coal miners, gun ownership, the rising prominence of Muslims in some U.S. communities and many other issues. Some ads, many of which were bought in Russian rubles, also explicitly called for people to attend political rallies amid a campaign season that already was among the most polarizing in recent U.S. history."
Although Facebook is receiving the most attention for its audience exposure to Russian-linked content, the social media platform is not alone. Both Google and Twitter have encountered claims that they've also unknowingly promoted Russian-supported posts. And Congress has called them to task for it.
A number of automated accounts -- also known as bots -- were found to be associated with heavily re-tweeted accounts and posts between September and November of 2016. In fact, according to Twitter, more than 36,000 Russia-linked accounts generated 1.4 million tweets containing automated, election-related content during that period, which were estimated to be seen by others almost 300 million times.
Ultimately, it goes to show that, in our digital age, most anyone can twist the information you receive to their own ends -- whether good or bad. No matter what side we're on, we should take the information we receive with a grain of salt.
Maybe a very big grain of salt.
More often than not, we have absolutely no idea where our content comes from -- despite where it appears to originate from. So, when you're browsing the Internet or checking your social media accounts, don't blindly believe or trust everything you see or read. It might just be fake news.