Commentary

Regardless Of Who Loses The Election Meddling Controversy, Russia Wins

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.”

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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.

3 comments about "Regardless Of Who Loses The Election Meddling Controversy, Russia Wins".
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  1. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 4, 2017 at 12:01 p.m.

    Publishing = publishing. Skywriting is a platform and publishes. Same for broadcast and print and internet. Fact checking and human editing required. 

  2. Michael Margolies from Michael Margolies Photography & Design, October 4, 2017 at 12:47 p.m.

    Terrible as this is, and ignoring the fact that the US has done and continues to do it to other countries still ignores some important factors.

    You give away your bias in the way you phased things. For example only mentioning the ads that might reflect as supporting Trump and yet failing to mention that half the ads also supported Clinton positions. Somehow that seems regularly ignored.

    Further, you assume then that the ads worked, and worked well enough to change the opinions of voters enough to alter the election. The same argument applies that it worked for Clinton and the ads gave her more votes than she should have had. But most worrying to me is your total bias in ignoring what we all know are the way ads actually influence.

    Less than 3% of targeted ads that people agree to accept work, less than 3% of opt-in emails result in a click though, less than 2% of ads in TV result in measurable impact, and less than 1% result in click through from side area ads and only 1% of those result in driving sales funnels or calls to action.

    Clearly stated you know your math is way off, and the implication is that a tiny percentage of people may have actually seen the ads, a even smaller amount of people would have responded to them and a minuscule percentage based on traditional marketing measurements would have been influenced by them. The vast majority of people never saw them, never responded, and completely ignored them just as most of us do with all the other FB advertising.

    Or another way we could state it is you and others in the media are creating fake news yourselves, blowing up the story, forcing a repeated narrative to delegitimize a sitting president. In short your no better than the foreign actors trying to negatively influence our voters. People doing so need to do some serious introspection about the roll you and the media have played in manipulating the US voters. Far worse and with far greater expense than the Russians have done.

  3. Patrick Stroh from Brunner / data science, analytics, October 4, 2017 at 5:12 p.m.

    Michael Margolies.  You got that right.  And, yea, we don't want any other country messing with our elections, and yea, there should be some sort of disclosure/screening (not as easy at it sounds perhaps).  But these ads, by themselves, did not shift the election.  There are far more momentous things that happened that add up to more than X critical swing votes.

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