Recent American history has its mysteries. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone? Why didn’t the Bush administration connect the obvious dots before 9/11 happened? How did that skinny black kid with that existentially threatening middle name – Hussein – get elected president – twice – and why will Donald Trump never say a bad word about Vladimir Putin – ever – and how the hell did Hillary Clinton lose to Donald Trump? No one saw that coming, not even Donald Trump.
There are lots of theories about that. Perhaps it was the FBI director, James Comey, in the summer before the election, saying that Hillary Clinton had been unforgivably reckless with her emails, but not criminally reckless, then about ten days before the election saying all bets were off – there seemed to be more emails – then two days before the election saying sorry, false alarm, there was nothing new there. That didn’t help – but perhaps Hillary Clinton was just a lousy candidate, simultaneously shrill and smug. But then Donald Trump was (and still is) a loud and loutish bully – not an ideal candidate either.
But at least he wasn’t a woman. That could have been a factor too. Or maybe Hillary Clinton was too inclusive. Donald Trump promised to rid the country of Mexicans and Muslims and, implicitly, anyone who wasn’t really an American. A good number of people ran with that – it could be Mexicans and Muslims and gays and young black thugs and Jews and inscrutable Asians and atheists and urban hipsters. They were all Fake Americans. Donald Trump never went that far, but he didn’t have to. He established the premise – and Hillary Clinton had all those Fake Americans on her side. She had to be stopped, before we’d be living in an unrecognizable fake America. That was the only way to Make American Great Again.
Donald Trump is still at it. His Voter Fraud Commission is about to hold hearings again – to prove beyond a doubt that Hillary Clinton did not win the popular vote by almost three million votes. Each and every one of those votes was cast by a Fake American who should never have been allowed to register to vote in the first place – you know – illegal aliens and whatnot. There is absolutely no evidence of any of that, but damn it, there will be – and while they’re working on that evidence, the commission will force each state to purge its voter rolls and set up elaborate voter-ID systems and devise ways to make it next to impossible for the “wrong sort of people” – the poor, the elderly, minorities, flaky college students – the Fake Americans – to ever vote again. It’s a plan. No one wants an unrecognizable fake America.
At least they haven’t gotten around to calling for the repeal of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women can still vote, and so can the poor, the elderly, minorities, flaky college students, and American Muslims too, and Mexican-Americans too. They’re not Fake Americans. They’re the real thing. Stop whining. Deal with it.
That seems simple enough. Screaming at any citizen that they’re “not a real American” was always metaphoric anyway. Of course they’re an American. You just wish they weren’t. That’s an opinion. Everyone has opinions, but things aren’t that simple. Facts can get blurred, and the New York Times’ Scott Shane tells that tale:
Sometimes an international offensive begins with a few shots that draw little notice. So it was last year when Melvin Redick of Harrisburg, Pa., a friendly-looking American with a backward baseball cap and a young daughter, posted on Facebook a link to a brand-new website.
“These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros and other leaders of the US,” he wrote on June 8, 2016. “Visit #DCLeaks website. It’s really interesting!”
Mr. Redick turned out to be a remarkably elusive character. No Melvin Redick appears in Pennsylvania records, and his photos seem to be borrowed from an unsuspecting Brazilian. But this fictional concoction has earned a small spot in history: The Redick posts that morning were among the first public signs of an unprecedented foreign intervention in American democracy.
This was a fake American invented by the Russians:
The DCLeaks site had gone live a few days earlier, posting the first samples of material stolen from prominent Americans by Russian hackers that would reverberate through the presidential election campaign and into the Trump presidency. The site’s phony promoters were in the vanguard of a cyber army of counterfeit Facebook and Twitter accounts, a legion of Russian-controlled impostors whose operations are still being unraveled.
This was an army of fake Americans invented by the Russians:
The Russian information attack on the election did not stop with the hacking and leaking of Democratic emails or the fire hose of stories, true, false and in between, that battered Mrs. Clinton on Russian outlets like RT and Sputnik. Far less splashy, and far more difficult to trace, was Russia’s experimentation on Facebook and Twitter, the American companies that essentially invented the tools of social media and, in this case, did not stop them from being turned into engines of deception and propaganda.
An investigation by The New York Times, and new research from the cybersecurity firm FireEye, reveals some of the mechanisms by which suspected Russian operators used Twitter and Facebook to spread anti-Clinton messages and promote the hacked material they had leaked.
It’s not pretty:
On Twitter, as on Facebook, Russian fingerprints are on hundreds or thousands of fake accounts that regularly posted anti-Clinton messages. Many were automated Twitter accounts, called bots, that sometimes fired off identical messages seconds apart – and in the exact alphabetical order of their made-up names, according to the FireEye researchers. On Election Day, for instance, they found that one group of Twitter bots sent out the hashtag #WarAgainstDemocrats more than 1,700 times.
The Russian efforts were sometimes crude or off-key, with a trial-and-error feel, and many of the suspect posts were not widely shared. The fakery may have added only modestly to the din of genuine American voices in the pre-election melee, but it helped fuel a fire of anger and suspicion in a polarized country.
So, while real Americans were screaming at each other about who was a real American, or not, the Russians injected an army of fake Americans screaming too, because it was so easy to do:
Critics say that because shareholders judge the companies partly based on a crucial data point – “monthly active users” – they are reluctant to police their sites too aggressively for fear of reducing that number. The companies use technical tools and teams of analysts to detect bogus accounts, but the scale of the sites – 328 million users on Twitter, nearly two billion on Facebook – means they often remove impostors only in response to complaints.
Though both companies have been slow to grapple with the problem of manipulation, they have stepped up efforts to purge fake accounts. Facebook says it takes down a million accounts a day – including some that were related to the recent French election and upcoming German voting – but struggles to keep up with the illicit activity.
That may be impossible:
Twitter, unlike Facebook, does not require the use of a real name and does not prohibit automated accounts, arguing that it seeks to be a forum for open debate. But it constantly updates a “trends” list of most-discussed topics or hashtags, and it says it tries to foil attempts to use bots to create fake trends. However, FireEye found that the suspected Russian bots sometimes managed to do just that, in one case causing the hashtag #HillaryDown to be listed as a trend.
Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who has closely tracked Russian activity online, said that Facebook and Twitter suffered from a “bot cancer eroding trust on their platforms.” But he added that while Facebook “has begun cutting out the tumors by deleting false accounts and fighting fake news,” Twitter has done little and as a result, “bots have only spread since the election.”
And it won’t end:
Russia deliberately blurs its role in influence operations, American intelligence officials say. Even skilled investigators often cannot be sure if a particular Facebook post or Twitter bot came from Russian intelligence employees, paid “trolls” in Eastern Europe or hackers from Russia’s vast criminal underground. A Russian site called buyaccs.com (“Buy Bulk Accounts at Best Prices”) offers for sale a huge array of pre-existing social media accounts, including on Facebook and Twitter; like wine, the older accounts cost more, because their history makes chicanery harder to spot.
In fact, those older accounts might now be real. Nasty people sell cheap wine in old bottles because few can tell the difference. It’s the same sort of thing. Who can spot a Fake American these days?
Who can spot fake-anything these days? At Talking Points Memo, Sam Thielman, tells the other sad story here:
After months of denial, Facebook told Congress and the public on Wednesday that a Russian “troll farm” had bought $100,000 worth of political ads on its site from 2015- 2016. That development was catnip for investigators looking into whether U.S. persons helped Russians target voters through social media.
Facebook reportedly handed over copies of the ads themselves to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into whether the Trump campaign’s data operation, which was led by the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, helped guide that targeting. Various congressional committees are also interested in whether the Trump campaign was involved in the upsurge in apparently foreign-controlled propaganda news and advertising that favored Trump in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Yes, this may be more than the Russians:
In July, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) told CNN that he felt foreign actors had been so effective in their efforts to influence the election that they likely needed domestic assistance to do so. “If the Russians know, how are the Russians smart enough to target in areas where the Democrats weren’t knowledgeable enough?” Warner said at the time. “I don’t feel like I have run that to ground yet.”
And as the Facebook news broke, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, echoed Warner’s question: How could the Russians possibly have outsmarted the Democrats?
The question Schiff wants answered is whether “they were at a level of sophistication where [the ad buyers] would have needed help or assistance from the campaign,” he told Wolf Blitzer.
This is an “oh shit” moment for the Trump administration:
It’s easy to see how the Facebook news plays right into that line of inquiry: Facebook traced the ad sales to the infamous Internet Research Agency, the Russian propaganda team that faked an environmental disaster in South Carolina in 2015, according to the New York Times. And Facebook’s own public statement is a dramatic reversal from the tech company’s previous position, stated as recently as July 20, that its internal investigation had come up with “no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.”
Now, however, there is evidence, and this can’t be shrugged off:
The company tried to downplay the amount of ad money the Russian firm spent, observing that $100,000 is a drop in the bucket for most political campaigns. But Facebook’s ability to target an audience, both geographically and by preference, means that as political advertising it is far undervalued, according to Gordon Borrell, CEO of ad industry analytics firm Borrell Associates, which produces a detailed annual report on political advertising.
“It’s probably worth ten million dollars of TV advertising because of what you can do with that advertising,” Borrell said. “You can take a very particular segment of the population and move them an inch this way or that way in a way you can’t do with a sort of mass media spray.”
As Darcy Bowe, senior vice president and media director at media-buying agency Starcom, puts it, “Where else in the world do we know so much about you?”
On the other hand there’s this:
Borrell expressed skepticism that the help of knowledgeable Americans was necessary to target a Russian propaganda enterprise. The highly polarized nature of American politics, he said, may actually give foreign actors the upper hand. “I think it’s actually easier for observers, those outside, to manipulate,” he said.
We’ve been screaming at each other for so long it may have been easy just to jump in at this flashpoint or that, and the tool was easy to use too:
Because it is an internet company, Facebook presents a soft target to foreign operators. Its ad sales operations are largely automated and are exempt from the kinds of controls that the Federal Election Commission has over broadcast ads – where Hillary Clinton’s campaign focused its media efforts.
That may not matter now:
Watchdog group Common Cause immediately filed complaints with the Justice Department and the FEC related to the Facebook ad buys, urging both to sanction the purchasers of the ads. And there may be more material for this piece of the various Russia probes coming down the pipeline: That other politically significant social media platform, Twitter, is performing a similar analysis of its ad buys and also is expected to brief investigators…
Politico handles that sort of thing:
Facebook is facing intense political fallout and thorny legal questions a day after confirming that Russian funds paid for advertising on the social media platform aimed at influencing voters during last year’s presidential election.
Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday he hopes to call executives from Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies to testify publicly about what role their companies may have played, however unwittingly, in the wider Kremlin effort to manipulate the 2016 White House race.
“I think we may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” the Virginia Democrat told reporters in response to Facebook’s Wednesday disclosure that apparent Russian-tied accounts spent some $150,000 on more than 5,200 political ads last year. Warner said Facebook’s disclosure was based only on a “fairly narrow search” for suspicious ad-buying accounts.
The pressure is building:
Facebook was also the target of a 20-minute monologue by the MSNBC host Rachel Maddow on Wednesday night, in which she pointedly noted the company’s past denials to media outlets including Time, McClatchy and CNN that it had found any Russian-bought ads.
“It raises very interesting questions about Facebook accepting that money to influence the U.S. election without noticing that it was from a foreign source,” she said, adding the Russian purchasers and Americans who knew about the ad buys were now exposed to criminal proceedings.
This is bad news all around:
Facebook’s disclosures have so far sparked the loudest outcry from Democrats, though Eric Wilson, the digital director from Republican Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, jumped in via Twitter to note “Facebook is keeping every penny” from the Russian-affiliated ads.
Speaking to reporters in the Capitol, Warner said he was “pleased” Facebook had presented Senate staff with its internal findings but noted that “one of the disappointments” was the company’s decision not to release any of the Russian-linked ads it did find.
Warner added that both Facebook and Congress were in “unchartered territory” as it examined foreign interference in U.S. elections via social media. But he said it was important that Congress shed light on what happened, including through public hearings with technology executives.
“The American people deserve to know both the content and the source of information that is being used to try to affect their votes,” he said.
No one wants an unrecognizable fake America after all:
A Facebook spokesman said the company would “continue to investigate and will cooperate with authorities” on the extent of Russian influence on its platform while declining comment on the calls for Mueller and the FEC to dig deeper into who paid for the ads.
At the FEC, Commissioner Ellen Weintraub declined comment on the Common Cause petition. But she did express concern about the prospect of Russian financing to influence a U.S. election.
“I do think this raises important issues, important questions about our internet disclosure rules and whether the American people are in a position to know where the information they learn on the internet is coming from,” she told POLITICO.
That would be nice, but there is that other issue:
On her Wednesday night program, Maddow told her viewers that Facebook’s admission opened the door to a serious round of criminal inquiries.
“This is direct evidence confirmed by Facebook of a discreet clear crime committed in the course of the Russian attack on our election,” she said. “Now, good luck bringing in the Russian military intelligence service into court to face the music for that particular crime, I know. But it’s a crime.”
The Atlantic’s David Graham says it’s more than that:
One lesson of the 2016 campaign was the power of even the shoddiest internet information. Fake news – in its original sense of fabricated material, rather than its newer Trumpian sense of anything that clashes with one’s partisan interest – spread easily and widely, and false beliefs implanted themselves with significant portions of the electorate. While it’s hard to guess at the impact of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads, it’s not hard to imagine them fitting in with the broader spectrum of disinformation.
We can depend on the Russians to supply that:
The exploitation of the free press as a means to advance the Kremlin’s ends is not a new tactic. RT, the television channel formerly known as Russia Today, is a hybrid of an actual news-gathering operation with a propaganda outlet. But a report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Russian interference in the election, issued in January, focused on the ways the Russian government used both traditional media and social-media trolling to further its goals in the election, and singled out the Internet Research Agency. That report cited a riveting 2015 article by Adrian Chen on the company, which describes how it functions as a troll farm for pro-Putin propaganda, as well as to advance the interests of commercial clients…
It isn’t new for the Kremlin to employ American domestic cleavages to gain political advantage, as Vladimir Putin, an old KGB hand, would know well. The Soviet government cynically decried segregation and publicized lynching incidents in order to distract scrutiny from its own gross violations of human rights, and to undermine America’s moral standing. Working to encourage racists, xenophobes, and bigots is simply a different iteration of that tactic, though fortuitously it dovetails with Putin’s own attacks on LGBT people and Muslims. (As Chen pointed out, the Internet Research Agency also played the other side of the fence, trying to sow chaos by planting fake stories about, for example, the shooting of an unarmed black woman by police.)
The proof that topics running from “LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights” were effective in the 2016 campaign comes, naturally, from the Trump campaign, which employed them throughout the campaign, both singly and under the broader umbrella of “political correctness.”
And that may be why Hillary Clinton lost:
Trump’s use of these issues helped to reshape the Republican electorate and deliver a victory that practically no one believed was possible. The Facebook announcement offers another example of how he had help in spreading his message, whether or not he knew it at the time.
He didn’t know it. He only established the premise. Hillary Clinton had all those Fake Americans on her side – minorities and oddballs and whatnot. She had to be stopped before we’d be living in an unrecognizable fake America – but Donald Trump had an army of computer-generated Digital Fake Americans on his side. That’s an unrecognizable America too. It’s time to choose one of them.