How the Kremlin is using social media to push its agenda

Russia has long used disinformation to manipulate its own citizens while attempting to sow fear, mistrust, and even envy among Westerners.

By Peter Grier (Wide Angle)

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Published: Thu 21 Sep 2017, 11:10 PM

Last updated: Fri 22 Sep 2017, 1:12 AM

Yes, a shadowy Russian firm with ties to the Kremlin bought about $100,000 worth of Facebook ads intended to sway voters during last year's presidential campaign, the social media giant disclosed earlier this month.
Does it matter? Given the tens of millions spent on political ads in 2016 that's a bucket of water thrown down a storm drain. And influencing elections with ads is a delicate science. It requires coordination, timing, and finesse - three things the Russian ad buy doesn't seem to have had.
The problem is, those Russian-bought online spots might be just a hint of a darker, undetected flood of attempts at influence. To use a different analogy they might be the equivalent of the Watergate break-in. That was a petty crime that by itself didn't sway the 1972 election. Its real importance was rooted in the vast, illegal conspiracy of which it was a symbol and product.
Thus despite the small size of the Russian Facebook ad buy, "it's really important to American politics," says David Karpf, an associate professor in George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, making the comparison with Watergate.
Facebook revealed the ad buy in question in a blog post from its chief security officer, Alex Stamos, on September 6. Congressional investigators had been pressuring the firm to look more closely at the possible relationship between its online ads and what US intelligence concludes was a Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 vote.
Between June 2015 and May 2017, 470 "inauthentic" accounts and pages associated with each other and likely operated out of Russia bought about 3,000 ads, wrote Stamos. About one-quarter of the ads were targeted to a specific geographical area.
Most of the ads did not directly mention a candidate or the election. Instead, they focused on amplifying divisive social and political messages, concluded Facebook.
That's now a common Kremlin approach. Consider Facebook's smaller rival Twitter. On September 19, the top trending topic from accounts and bots linked to Russia was "Manafort," according to the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a transatlantic initiative that monitors their activity. That's almost certainly a reference to Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign manager now in deep legal trouble for alleged connections to Russian figures. The third trending topic was "Pelosi" - House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California, a lawmaker heartily disliked by many conservatives.
In one sense, Russia's social media efforts are a new frontier in Moscow's historic propaganda efforts. The Kremlin has long used disinformation to manipulate its own citizens while attempting to sow fear, mistrust, and even envy among Westerners.
The problem with the old efforts was that they were tied to a political system, which had to be defended. This often rendered them clunky, unbelievable, and flat uninteresting. Soviet Life, a glossy magazine targeted for readers in the US and Western Europe, featured such gripping articles as "Uzbekistan: Sixty Years of Progress," and "Bad Day for a Wild Boar."
The old constraints are all gone, according to Dr Babiracki, author of Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin's New Empire, 1943-1957. Meanwhile, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has recognised that escalating and transforming the old propaganda effort is central to his effort to push back against Western dominance. Kremlin-funded outlets such as TV network RT explicitly model themselves on slick Western counterparts. The internet and social media have opened up vast new territory, with automated bots, paid trolls, and military hackers combining to push the Russian line.
What matters is that the $100,000 did not come from nowhere, according to George Washington University's David Karpf, author of "Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy." Maybe the Kremlin was just experimenting or trying to mess with candidates' heads. More likely the money was part of something larger - larger purchases that have yet to be fully detected, or even, as critics charge, part of a larger data effort that might even have been coordinated with data targeting officials linked to the Trump campaign.
There is no public evidence of such linkage. However, special counsel Robert Mueller has served Facebook with a search warrant to gather information on the accounts linked to the Russian spending. Mueller appears to be trying to piece together as large a picture as possible of Russia's clandestine information effort, and any possible links with US persons.
-The Christian Science Monitor

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