The tank was a British invention, built to penetrate German trenches during World War I. But it was the Germans who, during the interwar period, figured out how to most effectively utilize the tank, in coordination with aircraft and infantry, for offensive operations. Thus was born the blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) that allowed the Germans to overrun much of Europe in 1939-1940. The British and the French, who still had more and better tanks, were helpless to resist the onslaught.
Something similar seems to have happened with social media networks. All of the leading social media platforms — Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Google — are American inventions. Yet the Russians weaponized them to wage political war.
The 2016 U.S. presidential election was as shocking, in its own way, as the fall of France in May 1940. The complacent French thought they were secure behind the Maginot Line until the German panzers penetrated the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest. Likewise the complacent Hillary Clinton campaign thought it was secure because of its hordes of cash, its extensive on-the-ground operation, and the sheer awfulness of its opponent. Surprise! The Russians stole Democratic Party emails and, acting through cutouts like WikiLeaks, leaked the most damaging tidbits. Then social media did the rest. And lo and behold on Nov. 8, 2016, the unthinkable occurred: Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
The broad outlines of this story have been known for a while — at least since the release at the beginning of this year of an intelligence community assessment of the Russian influence operation — but in recent weeks we have been learning much more about how the Russian intelligence services manipulated social media to help Trump and undermine Clinton.
What we don’t know yet is whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, but there is good reason to suspect that there was. It’s not just that Donald Trump Jr. was so eager for dirt on Clinton when it was offered by Moscow’s emissaries. And it’s not just that the Trump campaign was run for months by Paul Manafort, who has long been on the payroll of pro-Vladimir Putin oligarchs and tried to trade on his position to curry favor with one of his primary Russian patrons. And it’s not just that the Trump campaign had extensive contacts with the Kremlin.
There is also the CNN report that Russian-linked ads on Facebook targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, both states that Trump carried by less than 1 percent and that were essential to his Electoral College victory. The Russians obviously have the expertise to steal emails, but where did they acquire the knowledge to so expertly target the American electorate? It strains credulity to imagine that it was just a coincidence that the Trump campaign was targeting those two states.
Trump partisans point out that the overall level of Russian spending on campaign ads was relatively low. Google claims to have found roughly $60,000 in ads; Facebook, $100,000; and Twitter, $270,000 — rounding errors compared with the nearly $1.9 billion spent collectively by the Clinton and Trump campaigns. But this ignores how close the election was: It was decided by fewer than 100,000 votes in three states. It would not have taken much to sway the outcome. So it is pretty significant that Facebook now says, according to CNN, “an estimated 10 million people in the U.S. saw at least one of the 3,000 political ads it says were bought by accounts linked to the Russian government.” (Many experts believe that Facebook’s estimate is low and that as many as 70 million people saw those ads.)
Those Facebook ads alone had the potential to tilt the election outcome — and they were only one small part of a much larger Russian effort whose full contours are still not known today. The employees of a notorious “troll farm” in St. Petersburg pretended to be American — or British or French or German or whatever — as they created online content to influence the social media of the target country. This doesn’t require any ad buying, and it happens almost invisibly because the trolls hide behind elaborate aliases.
There were, for example, the two supposed African-American bloggers known as Williams and Kalvin who posted videos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube attacking the Clintons (“serial killers who are going to rape the whole nation”), charging that Clinton’s campaign was “fund[ed] by the Muslim” and that she was an “old racist bitch,” and claiming that Trump couldn’t be racist because “any businessman cannot be a racist because when you are a racist, then your business is going down.” According to the Daily Beast, “Williams and Kalvin’s content was pulled from Facebook in August after it was identified as a Russian government-backed propaganda account.”
Not content to impersonate African-Americans, the Russian trolls also pretended to be American Muslims. They took on the digital identity of a real group called United Muslims of America and, according to the Daily Beast, “pushed memes that claimed Hillary Clinton admitted the U.S. ‘created, funded and armed’ al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State; claimed that John McCain was ISIS’ true founder; whitewashed blood-drenched dictator Moammar Gadhafi and praised him for not having a ‘Rothschild-owned central bank’; and falsely alleged Osama bin Laden was a ‘CIA agent.’”
At the same time that they were attempting to foment Muslim discontent in America, the opportunistic Russians were also pandering to anti-Muslim nativists — including organizing an anti-Muslim rally in Idaho in 2016. The Russians were behind websites such as “Being Patriotic” and “Secured Borders,” which often promoted “fake news” such as the claim that “Michigan allows Muslim immigrants to collect welfare checks and other benefits for four wives.”
The Russians’ operating principle is simple: Do whatever it takes to undermine America. Spread discord. Sow doubts. Spark conflict. Helping elect Trump — whose unfitness for office is now publicly acknowledged by a leading senator of his own party — is the centerpiece of that strategy. Sure, Trump hasn’t lifted sanctions on Russia (Congress has tied his hands), but the chaos and ineptitude of his administration redound to the advantage of America’s adversaries.
The Russian success in manipulating the 2016 election is only encouraging them to continue their information war. The German Marshall Fund of the United States has created a website to track the Kremlin’s disinformation. It shows that the Russians put their own anti-American spin on the news of the day, whether the Las Vegas shooting or the hurricane aftermath in Puerto Rico. Sen. James Lankford, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, notes that the Russians lately have been pushing hashtags such as #TakeaKnee and #BoycottNFL to exploit the Trump-fueled controversy over football players kneeling during the national anthem.
This is scary stuff. The United States, as a democratic society, is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of manipulation — all the more so when the proliferation of social media makes it so easy to aim bespoke lies at any audience that you want to influence. It’s tempting to conclude that the United States needs to give tyrants such as Putin a taste of their own medicine, but that won’t work because autocracies such as those in Moscow and Beijing censor the internet. The only thing the United States can do is play defense, by forcing social media companies to become much more transparent about who is conveying what messages.
Facebook, Twitter, Google, and all the rest have hardly been forthcoming. It has taken a congressional investigation to get them to come clean about what they know about Russian influence operations, and there may well be more that that they haven’t revealed yet. Given the vast and growing influence of these corporations — Facebook alone reaches more than 2 billion of the world’s 7 billion people — their lack of accountability can no longer be tolerated. Either they must do a better job of policing themselves or Washington needs to step in. We’ve already lost a major battle in the information war. We can’t survive as a liberal democratic superpower if we lose the whole war.