Congress is right to be upset about this. After months of claims about Russia-sponsored Internet trolls “interfering” in the 2016 election, the public still has yet to see specific evidence of what these “trolls” actually did.
Claims have been published describing the outlines of a Russian online campaign on the social media platforms. But there is virtually nothing to illustrate the campaign, or clarify for Americans how we, as social media users, may have experienced it.
Facebook has said that the Russians set up accounts on Facebook and then bought ad promotions for political content. Facebook self-reported an in-house study of that activity earlier this year, and then provided an update to it after a Russian media site (owned at the time by a Russian oligarch with connections to Hillary Clinton) exposed some of the Russian operation.
But except for illustrative information provided by the Russian media site, about one single Facebook account used by Russian operatives (see last link, above), the American public has not been presented with examples of what it was we were trolled with.
We have been told, however, that more than half of the Facebook ads bought by the Russians ran after the 8 November election. This seems rather remarkably hapless, for smart people like the Russians. Hapless, that is, if their goal was to affect the 2016 general election.
The timing of their Facebook ad buys would seem to indicate, rather, that they had something else in mind.
We have also been told that the great majority of the content they ran was actually created and posted by Americans – much of it, apparently, produced without any prior connection to the Russians, and simply copied and reused by them because it was there.
This point leads to the obvious question: if it’s “election interference” for Russians to circulate such content on social media, what was it when the American creators of the content circulated it originally?
If an American activist posted Black Lives Matter themed content online, was he trying to interfere with our election?
Would any American consider that to be interference in our election? If not, what is the argument that it was “interference,” when a Russian Internet troll copied the same content and promoted it with a Facebook ad?
Regarding Twitter, we have heard next to nothing: only that some of the Facebook accounts corresponded to Twitter accounts, and that Twitter has acknowledged that, and deleted the accounts. If there was a sinister profile of Russian tweet-bots washing our brains on Twitter, we don’t have a concept of what it entailed.
I think we all understand the idea of a bot surge, of course, flooding the Twitterverse with themed tweets. The question is what they looked like. What was the thermonuclear content that we’re supposed to believe got people to vote for Trump instead of Clinton – or, failing that linear (and deeply irrational) hypothesis, got them to so despair over the state of “our democratic system” that heaven knows what they did; no one seems to; but it must have been catastrophic, because after all, Russian trolls interfering in our election were involved.
We keep running into the problem that none of this circular narrative makes sense, and no one has presented evidence that makes it more sensible. Now we’re told that Facebook and Twitter have deleted the account information that would perhaps clarify what it’s all supposed to be about.
No one should expect the American public to take this fantastic narrative on faith, without at least being shown the actual ads that had the hook in our jaw and dragged us into something we wouldn’t otherwise have done. Or that made us uneasy and distraught, or sowed division, or drove us to think Trump was a good idea, or put us off of Hillary in favor of a rumpled old socialist. Or something. It’s never clear, no matter how many times the narrative is trotted out.
You’d have a hard time convincing millions of voters that they cast primary ballots for Bernie Sanders, or general election ballots for Trump, because some guy’s blog post decrying the abuse of eminent domain got hijacked by the Russians and promoted by them in a Facebook ad – probably, in fact, three or four days after the 8 November election.
At least, the voters would really need to see that ad, to give your theory the time of day instead of just looking at you like you’ve lost your mind.
But it’s an open question at this point whether we’re ever going to see examples of what this is all about, or gain a comprehensive sense of it from seeing the actual numbers and times of exposure to specific ads.
Members of Congress are understandably peeved about that. They have every right to be.
Frankly, it strikes me as downright peculiar that Facebook was so Johnny-on-the-spot with this earlier in 2017, publicly confessing to its role in endangering the election by selling ad promotions, and making seemingly specific, numbers-encrusted disclosures about its own actions. But now all that public-spirited confessing and data surveying has ended ingloriously in an inexplicable deletion of the data.
Twitter, reportedly, deleted its data in accordance with company policy, as soon as the accounts were identified as Russian-front troll accounts and terminated. (That means, in fact, that there hasn’t been Twitter account data to peruse for months. Worth keeping in mind, as fresh reporting creates the impression that we know something new about all this.)
As Gizmodo says, the Washington Post speculates that Facebook deleted its data after a third-party analysis was published that suggested the reach of the Facebook ads was as much as twice what Facebook had estimated; i.e., 20 million views instead of 10 million. In Gizmodo’s words:
Thousands of posts were deleted [by Facebook]. The decision led to allegations in the Post that Facebook may have been acting on its own behalf to conceal the true reach of the ads.
This has a false ring to me, however, since Facebook has been so enthusiastically cooperative up to now.
It’s extra bizarre given that we’ve known since at least March that the FBI is investigating the washing of our brains on social media in 2016, and that Facebook and Twitter are at the center of the probe. What would possess Facebook to delete all the account data under those conditions?
Given the complete absence of substantive evidence to date, I’m more inclined to suspect that the reason we’re never going to see the deleted account data is that none of it would be convincing about the “interfering in the election” narrative.
Make up your own story about how Facebook and Twitter came to delete the data. That’s not the real point. The real point continues to be that there is no there there, and no one ever produces any “there” to inspect.
I’ve stipulated from the beginning that Russia does, indeed, run government campaigns to pollute the public information environment of foreign targets like the U.S. There’s no doubt that’s a valid claim, and each of us can read Sputnik or listen for clues in an RT TV segment as well as the next person. But when it comes to specific cause-and-effect claims about what Russia may have tried to do on social media in 2016, the “Russia Russia Russia” narrative is all smoke and mirrors. So far, nothing — quite literally nothing — has convincingly demonstrated the election-related chain of causation we are supposed to be imagining in our heads.