Reporters and analysts have long suspected and, over the past several weeks, confirmed that Russian cyberactors were running propaganda campaigns under the noses of three major tech companies—Facebook, Twitter and Google—during the 2016 elections. Even Microsoft’s Bing network reportedly sold ads to the Russians.
Those interlocking propaganda campaigns didn’t consist of merely stumping for Donald Trump or deriding Hillary Clinton. Instead, most of the ads unearthed thus far appear to have been devoted to reinforcing the American electorate’s own prejudices; that gambit appears terribly obvious and unsubtle in hindsight, as the contents of the ads continue to trickle out in the press. But no one spotted it at the time.
For example, YouTube videos recently uncovered by the Daily Beast feature two black men with African accents calling Clinton an “evildoer” next to a Black Lives Matter logo. One meme posted on a Russian troll-operated Facebook account read—with a dropped article worthy of Boris Badenov—“Why do I have a gun? Because it’s easier for my family to get me out of jail than out of cemetery.”
Facebook has said the Russian-bought ads were probably viewed 10 million times; Columbia University professor Jonathan Albright has suggested that, when all traffic to Russian-run accounts—not just the ads—is combined, that number increases to hundreds of millions, and possibly billions, of times. It’s not known whether all the propaganda itself was as hamfisted as the ads the public has seen, but even the amateurish material was unlikely to raise eyebrows, because the function of social media is to affirm its users, said Gordon Borrell, CEO of ad industry analytics firm Borrell Associates.
On Facebook, as opposed to a medium like television, “you’re able to hone in on someone who will likely vote Republican or will likely vote Democrat and hold on to them a bit more,” Borrell told TPM. “You don’t see a lot of crossover. They’ll hold onto you as a voter—at least that’s what [social media] campaigns appear to do.”
It’s certainly possible that some people who saw the laughable YouTube videos, crummy Facebook memes and broken-English tweets were suspicious of them; it’s also possible that the low-quality Russian ads were the exception. But it’s also generally true that when people hear what they want to hear, they’re unlikely to question who’s talking.
Facebook, Twitter and Google have flattened the media ecosystem to such a degree that traditional news outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times effectively compete with whitewashed demagoguery masquerading as information on sites like InfoWars and Breitbart. The Google News ranking algorithm gives those sites equal footing, and until very recently treated digital troll hive 4Chan as a news source. Partisan Facebook pages like @BeingConservative rack up millions of followers.
Against that backdrop, the now-defunct “conservative news” Twitter account @tpartynews amassed tens of thousands of followers before it was deactivated in August. @tpartynews frequently trashed Black Lives Matter, the decentralized black activist movement that protests systemic racism and police killings of black people in particular. And as TPM previously reported, @tpartynews’ followers were lapping up state-sponsored Russian propaganda: the feed was run by the now-notorious Russian troll farm, the Federal News Agency (previously known as the Internet Research Agency), that purchased $100,000 worth of Facebook ads.
“Williams and Kalvin,” the black YouTube personalities who the Daily Beast reported were part of Russia’s propaganda effort, used a Black Lives Matter logo and invoked the Black Panthers in poorly-produced videos of their own. The content is barely pro-Trump, but as Justin Hendrix, executive director of the NYC Media Lab, pointed out, that didn’t really matter—some of the Russian propaganda was even pro-Bernie Sanders.
“One of the reasons people are dismissing this stuff is they’ll look at one particular instance of this stuff and say, ‘That looks like it might be vaguely anti-Trump,'” Hendrix told TPM. “And you’ll dig under it and see that while it may initially appear anti-Trump it has a subtler purpose, to discourage people from being engaged or to suggest that all politics are so corrupt that there’s an equivalence between the candidates.”
That equivalence boosted Trump’s electoral prospects even as a score of women accused him of grotesque sexual misconduct. The Trump campaign didn’t need conservatives who didn’t dig Trump as a candidate to like him—they just needed those holdouts to believe he was better than Clinton, and the image of a black person supporting him, or at least deriding her as a “racist bitch,” might do the trick.
“A lot of it does seem to really prey on identity politics,” Hendrix said.
That identity politics was already surging in reaction to the presence of a black president: Conservative pundits have been quick to attribute any unrest that follows episodes of police brutality to Black Lives Matter, wielding #bluelivesmatter and #alllivesmatter hashtags on social media, and to tie all Black Lives Matter positions to Obama, whose justice department had taken first steps toward police reform. Russian-operated accounts gleefully exploited that festering sore spot: the @tpartynews Twitter account pushed out the message that “Crimminals [sic] commit less crime after they have been shot! That’s why I say #BlueLivesMatter.”
The Russian campaign played the other side of the issue as well. According to CNNMoney, Facebook ads were targeted around Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, two areas with reputations for police brutality and vicious clashes with the protestors who objected to it. A Facebook account called “Blacktivist” posted ostensibly pro-black liberation rhetoric that was filled with dogwhistles designed to play on the worst right-wing fears: “Our race is under attack, but remember, we are strong in numbers,” one post uncovered by CNN proclaimed. “Black people should wake up as soon as possible,” said another.
The Daily Beast reported that former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who introduced kneeling during the national anthem to the league as a form of protest against systemic racism, was a frequent target of the Kremlin-backed propaganda campaign as well.
People who fear disloyalty don’t just fear activists like BLM. Trump’s resoundingly anti-immigrant campaign, with its cornerstone of a border wall he may or may not ever build, and the nativist grievances that anchor his base dovetail with the Putin government’s desire to see less military and diplomatic cooperation across the West.
The @tpartynews account was quick to tie together everything the right fears about undocumented people: “Illegal Immigrants today.. Democrat on welfare tomorrow!” Russian-linked Facebook pages went a step further: “Due to the town of Twin falls, Idaho, becoming a center of refugee resettlement, which led to the huge upsurge of violence towards American citizens, it is crucial to draw society’s attention to this problem,” read a post on the SecuredBorders page, according to the Daily Beast. That page went so far as to promote an anti-refugee rally in Twin Falls, Idaho, although it’s not clear that anyone actually showed up.
Another Russian-linked group called Heart of Texas, with about 225,000 followers, successfully organized anti-immigrant rallies protesting “higher taxes to feed undocumented aliens” and warned of the scourge of “mosques,” according to Business Insider. CNN reported that the group, which proposed “no mosques in America,” also succeeded in organizing one rally that was captured on video.
Undergirding both the anti-immigrant and anti-black sentiment the Russian propaganda campaign capitalized on is a fear of violence. It’s something the NRA exploited throughout the tenure of the United States’ first black president to great effect, and it was easy for Russian trolls to exploit too.
The New York Times listed “gun rights” among the topics covered by the divisive Russian Facebook ads turned over to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators. @tpartynews tweeted several pro-gun messages, and the “out of cemetery” meme referenced above appeared on a Russian-linked Facebook page called “Defend the 2nd.”
Looking at the ads—though scant few of them have been unearthed by reports as tech companies have declined to publicly release them—it’s clear that the issue of race is paramount. The ads that have surfaced play relentlessly on prejudices against black people, immigrants and Muslims, and Trump’s campaign was a symphony of insults maligning all three groups.
Advertising from the Trump campaign was notable for the brazenness of its racialized invective; the Russian propaganda campaign followed suit with a microtargeted series of ads explicitly playing up racism and bigotry, rather than trying to sanitize it with coded phrases and winks. The results were inexpert and scattershot—the improbably named “Williams and Kalvin” seem to be looking at cue cards occasionally in their videos—but Facebook, Twitter and their peers had honed the delivery mechanism so carefully that the relative sophistication of the Russian propaganda may not have mattered.
“It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in computer science to use Facebook’s targeting tools,” Hendrix said. “These are tools that were built for anybody to be able to target messages and ads to any constituency. They’re designed for the lowest common denominator—to be as simple as possible and to work at scale.”
This post has been updated.