Facebook’s disclosure that mysterious Russian operatives established hundreds of fake profiles on its social network — and bought political ads that were seen by millions of Americans during the 2016 presidential election — has again put the spotlight on technology companies.
The debate centers on issues like whether social platforms are responsible for regulating content posted by users, or requiring advertisers to disclose their true identities. But one thing is clear: Whoever ends up on the losing end of the controversy (so far Facebook is a safe bet) one player will win no matter what — Russia.
According to Facebook’s own disclosures to Congress, various entities and individuals apparently working for Russian intelligence bought around 3,000 ads over two years, which were seen by an estimated 10 million American Facebook users. And what did this cyber-espionage cost? A total investment of just $100,000.
Many of the ads carried divisive political and social messages, for example, encouraging violence against Muslims and stirring up sentiment against immigrants, labeled as “rapists, murderers, [and] child molesters.”
Many ads placed by the Russia-affiliated accounts were timed to coincide with the 2016 presidential election. However, some of these accounts were buying ads on Facebook as recently as August, the social network also disclosed. Overall, Facebook vice-president for policy and communications Ian Schrage stated that 44% of the ads were seen before the election, 56% afterwards.
These disclosures naturally raise the question of whether ads bought by Russian operatives, or any other foreign entities, might have swayed the 2016 election.
A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests this scenario is not impossible, although it hardly constitutes proof. (And it is unlikely such proof will ever be forthcoming.)
Assuming the volume of ads seen corresponds to audience size, then around 4.4 million people saw the ads before the election. Distributing this number across the various U.S. states proportionally to their populations, you get figures of 78,699 for Wisconsin, 135,200 for Michigan and 174,038 for Pennsylvania — enough to change the margin of victory in each state.
(Trump won by 27,257 votes in Wisconsin, 10,704 in Michigan and 44,292 in Pennsylvania).
While this sort of counterfactual speculation is often amusing, it is ultimately meaningless. There is no way to gauge the actual impact on the election result. But the precise outcome is beside the point, as the Russians themselves recognize. The mere suggestion of foreign meddling has already served to cast doubt on the entire democratic process, creating an impression of illegitimacy that may be more important than reality.
Indeed, America’s enemies can only benefit when ordinary Americans start to question the fundamental integrity of their political process, as well as the motives and trustworthiness of their fellow citizens — and their own ability to perceive and understand reality.
The Kremlin has already achieved a remarkable success.