While the storm and anguish of President Trump’s latest controversy rolls over the news, we’ve learned a lot more about the Russian influence operation supporting Donald Trump’s candidacy last year. Over recent weeks we had already found out about those few hundreds of accounts on Facebook and something in the range of $100,000 in paid advertising on the Facebook platform. Then there was a comparable series of findings on Twitter. More is in the process of emerging from Google and the various platforms it controls. But over recent days, as the information keeps coming, the very repetitiveness of the new findings or the constancy of the flow has perhaps obscured its newness and how much it expands the story.
On Tuesday we noted a Russian publication’s story about how Russian trolls from what was previously known as the “Internet Research Agency” (now renamed the Federal News Agency) had recruited up to 100 unwitting American activists to organize events on its behalf in the US. Last month we had learned about seemingly abortive attempts by Russian trolls to organize an anti-Muslim rally in a town in Idaho. That was the first evidence of the pro-Trump campaign going offline and trying to organize real life events. But that just scratched the surface.
ABC News published a story last night documenting numerous Americans (real names and specific people now) who were paid money (apparently not knowing its origins), recruited to attend or organize events or take other actions. One hip-hop artist in St. Louis was even paid to record a song for the campaign’s ersatz black activist organization “BlackMattersUS.”
Even some of the Twitter accounts which had already been found were considerably more prolific and influential than we had known. One Russia-created Twitter account for the Tennessee Republican Party had more than ten times the followers of the real Tennessee GOP Twitter account. The Tennessee party had apparently complained about it to Twitter, to no avail. A number of top Trump aides engaged with the ersatz account late in the 2016 campaign and President himself thanked an affiliated account on Twitter just last month!
What’s clear is that these small numbers of accounts on Facebook and Twitter were only a very small part of the larger story. Frankly, I suspect they are only a very small part of the story on those platforms themselves. The idea that these platforms can or even have a strong interest in identifying all the accounts tied to this campaign is naive. That is especially so since the Russian-created accounts and actors had a penumbra of Americans who were, knowingly or not, amplifying and disseminating the campaign. At a minimum, this went far beyond the hacking and Wikileaks-disseminated emails. It went far beyond a small number of troll accounts and bots on the major social networks. It involved a significant number of fake activist organizations, hiring and recruiting Americans, paying them for various services. It is also clearly still underway.