Social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, are designed to bring together like minded people, which is why they are so good for making something quickly popular, arranging events and creating clubs. They do this in part by “tags” or indexing text and media so it can be searched. I think algorithms automatically add tags and users can also choose tags. It’s possible to tag something “adorable cat” and get thousands of views without posting anything about cats. Because of the design intended to connect like minded people through this indexing, it becomes difficult to use the medium to persuade someone who is not already so inclined. The U.S. State Department is well aware of this as it spent $630,000 for Facebook campaigns in 2011 and 2012 that did increase “fans” from about 100,000 to 2 million, but fans who were probably not actually interested in America so much as the cute pictures and occasional interesting post. Think Japanese English students whose teachers tell them to download and study a story from the internet. An Inspector General’s report found that the number of Facebook users who actually engaged with each page was relatively small, with only about 2 percent “liking,” sharing or commenting on any item within the previous week. Advertising on social media is also quite different from print media. Advertisers pay Google or Facebook directly for advertising which is then farmed out to pages that algorithms determine will have interested readers. The advertisers bid on a “per view” price that Google and Facebook then share with the pages that are contracted to host the ads. While this does allow for very successful “micro-targeting” of ads, it also foments clickbait, headlines or photos meant only to get people to click on something that takes them to a page hosting an ad that the host then gets paid for bringing people to. There are any number of links on a standard Google or Facebook search with descriptions like “Try this one easy trick …” or “You won’t believe that …” or even “Black Bloc activists start violent …” that lead to blank pages when clicked on. This is a page that has contracted to bring viewers to an ad that doesn’t even have to appear on the page — all that matters is that someone “saw” or “was exposed” to that page. Thus Facebook claims that 162 million (or whatever number) people were reached by Russian linked propaganda. Imagine if all of the men who looked at the lingerie ads in the Sears catalog (because it was the closest they could get to pornography) were actually interested in buying lingerie.
Here are some statistics about the Facebook ads. From my own calculation that $100,000 was spent and the average price per click is $0.27, then roughly 370,371 clicks happened over about two years. This was for “social and political messages across the ideological spectrum” and so highly unlikely to have had any influence over any particular issue. From an article by Max Blumenthal, “According to Facebook’s data, 56 percent of Russian-linked ads appeared after the 2016 presidential election, and another 25 percent “were never shown to anyone.” The ads were said to have “reached” over 100 million people, but that assumes that Facebook users did not scroll through or otherwise ignore them, as they do with most ads. Content emanating from “Russia-linked” sources on YouTube, meanwhile, managed to rack up hit totals in the hundreds, not exactly a viral smash.”
When the fake news frenzy first surfaced, it was Macedonians creating Facebook pages that praised Trump, while panning Trump’s main opposition. These pages were entirely clickbait. An investigation by Wired found that Macedonians were buying fake user profiles in order to set up the number of pages they needed to get enough ad revenue. Fake Russian profiles cost 10 cents each while American profiles were 50 cents. So pages were created with Russian profiles that reportedly earned a few thousand dollars a month by getting people to click on the page. The young “troll” who was the main focus of Wired’s article copied articles from, mostly American, tabloids and right wing websites correctly guessing that Trump supporters would click and so would the occasional Democrat checking the opposition. There is no mention of what kind of ads appeared on the pages that generated so much money. What is clear is that there was no interest in politics or who would become the U.S. president and no attachment to the Kremlin. The criteria that Facebook, et al have adopted to decide a page or post is “Russian-linked” are so loose that Macedonian teenagers easily fit if they have fake Russian profiles. So, for that matter, do Russian dissidents who escaped Russia out of fear of the dreaded Putin, but have the main language set as Russian on their user profile, or who use a Cyrillic keyboard.
In part 1 of this I said that a few primary sources have been endlessly repeated until alleged becomes fact. It’s very hard to find stories that don’t mention The Internet Research Agency as the font of propaganda in the form of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts and comments left on popular websites like the Huffington Post. I have found three articles that I believe are the wellspring of this knowledge. Buzzfeed originally “exposed” the existence of The Internet Research Agency and it’s dastardly work in June of 2014 from information it gained through a group of leaked e-mails reportedly received by a man in charge of an internet troll project. “Plans attached to emails leaked by a mysterious Russian hacker collective show IT managers reporting on a new ideological front against the West in the comments sections of Fox News, Huffington Post, The Blaze, Politico, and WorldNetDaily.” “According to the documents, which are attached to several hundred emails sent to the project’s leader, Igor Osadchy, the effort was launched in April and is led by a firm called the Internet Research Agency. It’s based in a Saint Petersburg suburb, and the documents say it employs hundreds of people across Russia who promote Putin in comments on Russian blogs (emphasis is mine). Osadchy told BuzzFeed he had never worked for the Internet Research Agency and that the extensive documents — including apparent budgeting for his $35,000 salary — were an “unsuccessful provocation.” He declined to comment on the content of the leaks. The Kremlin declined to comment. The Internet Research Agency has not commented on the leak. In other words, there is no corroboration of what is alleged and the main suspect denies the allegation. And despite the claim that “Definitively proving the authenticity of the documents and their authors’ ties to the Kremlin is, by the nature of the subject, not easy.” the authenticity of the documents and their alleged authors’ ties to the Kremlin is taken for granted by the likes of the BBC and New York Times.
In June of 2015 Adrian Chen wrote an investigative piece for the New York Times Magazine in which he tried to link the Internet Research Agency to a hoax news story about toxic fumes and an explosion at Columbia Chemical in Louisiana on September 11, 2014. There were initial reports followed by Facebook and Twitter posts, and a YouTube video claiming to show the flash from the explosion, and dozens of queries and comments on news and emergency management websites that turned out to be false. The director of the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for St. Mary Parish, Louisiana, said “It was just someone who just liked scaring the daylights out of people.” Authorities, he said, had tried to trace the numbers that the text messages had come from, but with no luck. Mr. Chen was not so sanguine “The Columbia Chemicals hoax was not some simple prank by a bored sadist. It was a highly coordinated disinformation campaign, involving dozens of fake accounts that posted hundreds of tweets for hours, targeting a list of figures precisely chosen to generate maximum attention.” But even if he’s correct, was it a Russian campaign ? Another theory was floated on the Pastebin forum shortly afterward and regards Birla Carbon, the company that owns Columbia Chemical. “My other theory is that it’s an Indian business dispute. The company is based in India, and the majority of their business holdings are there. The guy in the video sounds like he’s from India. Birla Carbon isn’t publicly traded, and they don’t look to be preparing an IPO. Still, this is so weird I think it could be just a business dispute.” Nevertheless, and probably unaware of any other explanation, Mr. Chen was off to St. Petersburg to investigate The Internet Research Agency; besides, there were other strange and elaborate hoaxes and he was already investigating The Agency. The main source for Chen’s story is Ludmila Savchuk, who sued The Internet Research Agency for violating labor rights laws, which proves the agency exists. Savchuk, a bona fide internet troll who definitely worked for the agency, only worked in Russian, on Russia and Ukrainian sites, and provides no proof that the agency worked on foreign news media.
“The only person I spoke with who worked in the English department was a woman named Katarina Aistova. A former hotel receptionist, she told me she joined the Internet Research Agency when it was in a previous, smaller office. I found her through the Anonymous International leak, which included emails she had sent to her bosses, reporting on the pro-Putin comments she left on sites like The Blaze and Politico.” “The majority of her work was translating news articles from English to Russian. The news articles covered everything from Ukraine to traffic accidents. On a few occasions, her bosses asked her to leave comments on American news sites about Russia, but she said that they never told her what to say.” The Anonymous International leak is the uncorroborated leak reported by Buzzfeed. In a bizarre twist, Chen claims she set him up by insisting she needed to bring “her brother” to their interview for protection. The brother turned out to be a notorious neo-Nazi, and a day after Chen left St. Petersburg, an official Russian news outlet ran a photo and the headline “What Does a New York Times Journalist Have in Common With a Nazi From St. Petersburg?” “The story detailed a mysterious meeting in St. Petersburg between a New York Times journalist — me — and a neo-Nazi.” As convoluted as what I’ve written here is, it’s a fraction of Adrian Chen’s article, which got him on national TV, including PBS, where his story was uncritically repeated by an open mouthed, golly gee reporter. “And you actually became a victim of this troll farm didn’t you ? tell us how that happened.””After recovering from the initial shock, I began to track the campaign against me. I had practice, after all, from my months spent on the trail of the Internet Research Agency. I Googled the various Russian spellings of my name every hour to catch the latest posts as soon as they surfaced on LiveJournal and VKontakte. A few days later, Soshnikov chatted with me on Skype. “Did you see an article about you on FAN?” he asked. “They know you are going to publish a loud article, so they are trying to make you look stupid in front of the Russian audience.”I explained the setup, and as I did I began to feel a nagging paranoia. The more I explained, the more absurd my own words seemed — the more they seemed like exactly the sort of elaborate alibi a C.I.A. agent might concoct once his cover was blown.”
Yes, exactly. And that’s basically what Seymour Hersh claims, though somewhat incoherently “I have what they call in my business a long-form journalism, I have a narrative of how that whole fucking thing began, it’s a Brennan operation [John Brennan Director CIA 2013 ~ 2017], it was an American disinformation and fucking the fucking President, at one point when they, they even started telling the press, they were back briefing the press, the head of the NSA was going and telling the press, fucking cock-sucker Rogers, was telling the press that we even know who in the GRU, the Russian Military Intelligence Service, who leaked it. I mean all bullshit.” This is from a telephone call uploaded to YouTube in August and the leak he’s talking about is the DNC emails, but “that whole fucking thing” is Russiagate. Hersh is, of course, also making an uncorroborated claim. Not to worry though, The Internet Research Agency has already become an integral part of the Russiagate myth.
The third article that seems most commonly linked to was in Der Spiegel in June 2015 in which the aforementioned Ludmila Savchuk is identified as a journalist who infiltrated The Internet Research Agency in order to “expose the business of paying people to post pro-Kremlin online comments.” She alleges that she worked on Russian language sites, didn’t know who was in charge of the agency and was paid in cash, under the table. A far cry from proof of a Kremlin operated troll farm trying to influence western media.
Fake Twitter accounts were identified by particular characteristics that are considered not human-like by IT professionals. Accounts where the user doesn’t upload a profile picture or post tweets, retweet or upload personal opinions is suspect. I’m not a Twitter user, but I can tell you there is a large number of very real people who have Facebook pages with no profile picture who don’t often post. Especially people our age frequently join Facebook at the urging of younger people, like grandchildren or the children of friends, use the page to occasionally check up on the birthdays and weddings and “relationships” of friends and family, but quickly give up on posting when it becomes apparent their opinions don’t fit with the dominant stream, which is apparent by the lack of “likes” and comments and re-posts. Accounts which post too often are also suspected of being controlled by artificial intelligence (bots). I have a friend who was so worried about Trump that he spent all day on Sundays finding ammunition against Trump and posting it. Most of it was from meme makers like “Too Smart to Vote Republican.com,” or “Correct the Record.com,” or “Occupy Democrats.com” and it soon became apparent he wasn’t reading what he was posting. 20 posts on a Sunday and none during the week was not unusual. I’m sure the same kind of behavior occurs on Twitter. It’s not that I think artificial intelligence plays no part in fake Twitter accounts, it’s that I think it’s more likely the corporate kind where an employee’s ability to regurgitate what is pleasing to its boss using corporate nomenclature is considered intelligent.
This is from Twitter’s written statement to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism: “We separately analyzed the accounts that we have thus far identified through information obtained from third-party sources as linked to the Internet Research Agency.” Third party sources like Buzzfeed and Adrian Chen ? The Judiciary Committee is chaired by Chuck Grassley for the red team and Dianne Feinstein for the blue, while the subcommittee is chaired by Lindsey Graham and Sheldon Whitehouse. To experience authentic government funded propaganda, I suggest visiting the Judiciary Committee’s website and reading the profiles of these members under “ABOUT THE COMMITTEE”