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5 questions for social networks after the Mueller indictment

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Over the weekend, the press further digested special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russia
 
February 19 · Issue #86 · View online
The Interface
Over the weekend, the press further digested special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians in connection with their massive, multimillion-dollar effort to undermine our democracy. Here are the five big questions everyone is thinking through. 
1. How effective was the Russian misinformation campaign described in the Mueller indictment? 
This question is the most important of the five, and the one least likely to be answered to anyone’s satisfaction. But three articles from the Times frame the debate well. 
Start with Scott Shane’s piece about the unwitting Americans who helped Russia in its campaign. This anecdote captures the absurdity of some of the real-world protests organized in the United States by Russia.
A dozen people who turned out for the first event, some carrying rifles, Confederate flags and a banner saying “White Lives Matter,” faced off across a street with a far larger crowd of counterprotesters. The police kept the crowds apart, and there was no trouble at the event, which was caught on video.
Later, on social media, some puzzled participants complained that no one from Heart of Texas, which had about 250,000 likes on Facebook, had shown up for the group’s own rally.
Now zoom out to this higher-level view of the question, from Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman. It’s important to consider Russian activity on Facebook and other platforms in the context of their larger misinformation war:
The interference was not limited to the actions laid out by Mr. Mueller in the indictment of the 13 Russians linked to a “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency.
According to the intelligence community, the Russian government supported the email hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the personal account of John D. Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, as well as the disclosure of Mrs. Clinton’s paid speeches. The committee emails, leaked just before the Democratic National Convention, helped increase the rancor between supporters of Mrs. Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders.
Finally, read Amanda Taub and Max Fisher’s more skeptical take, which argues that if Russia is the immediate cause of our worries, the larger and more existentially worrisome problem is homegrown political polarization:
 “Partisanship can even alter memory, implicit evaluation, and even perceptual judgment,” the political scientists Jay J. Van Bavel and Andrea Pereira wrote in a recent paper. “The human attraction to fake and untrustworthy news” — a danger cited by political scientists far more frequently than orchestrated meddling — “poses a serious problem for healthy democratic functioning.”
It has infected the American political system, weakening the body politic and leaving it vulnerable to manipulation. Russian misinformation seems to have exacerbated the symptoms, but laced throughout the indictment are reminders that the underlying disease, arguably far more damaging, is all American-made.
Ultimately, Russia’s campaign succeeded in sowing discord and reducing trust in American institutions. The extent to which it led directly to President Donald Trump’s election is impossible to say. For our purposes it’s enough to know that social media was the interface through which Russia sought to unmake our democracy.
2. How should we think about Rob Goldman’s tweets — and the president’s? After we sent out The Interface on Friday, Facebook’s vice president of ads published a now-infamous thread in which he pushed back on the idea that Russia’s illegal advertising on the platform was designed to throw the election to Trump. “The majority of the Russian ad spend happened AFTER the election,” he wrote. “We shared that fact, but very few outlets have covered it because it doesn’t align with the main media narrative of Tump and the election.”
Goldman found a kindred spirit in President Trump, himself famously not a fan of “the main media narrative.” Trump quote-tweeted Goldman and, in so doing, essentially dragooned a high-ranking Facebook executive into his permanent war against journalism: “The Fake News Media never fails,” Trump tweeted. “Hard to ignore this fact from the Vice President of Facebook Ads, Rob Goldman!”
Sheera Frankel fact-checks Goldman and finds that he was wrong in several important ways. Regarding Goldman’s tweet about the media narrative, Frankel writes:
According to figures published by Facebook last October, 44 percent of the Russian-bought ads were displayed before the 2016 election, while 56 percent were shown afterward. Mr. Goldman asserted that those figures were not published by the “mainstream media” — however, many mainstream news outlets did print those numbers, including CNN, Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
Kevin Roose is also unimpressed with Goldman’s take on the indictment:
Some of Mr. Goldman’s claims may have been narrowly true, but they were a prime example of misdirection. Why is educating citizens about digital literacy the solution to misinformation, as Mr. Goldman suggested, rather than fixing the tech platforms that make misinformation hard to distinguish from truth? Why should it reassure us that most of Russia’s Facebook advertising was purchased after the election, rather than telling us that Facebook continued to drop the ball even after it knew it had a Russia problem?
Meanwhile, the president rounded out the weekend with a Twitter barrage of his own, write Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman:
The president denied — despite the ample evidence to the contrary — that he had ever suggested that Moscow might not have been involved. He called Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, a “monster.” And he asserted that the Russians were “laughing their asses off” because the efforts to investigate and combat Moscow’s meddling had only given the Russians what they wanted.
3. Who are these Russians, anyway? My colleague Russell Brandom wrote about how much more sophisticated the Russians were than we thought previously:
One of the most surprising lessons of the indictment is just how seriously the Russians took their fake identities. We might associate troll accounts with spam or weird visuals, but at least some of the accounts described by Mueller were backed up by full-scale identity theft. According to the indictment, defendants used stolen Social Security numbers to build entire false personas, complete with fraudulent photo IDs and PayPal accounts. Crucially, the stolen Social Security numbers meant all of it was happening in a real US citizen’s name. If anyone looked into the person behind the account, they’d see a long paper trail and plenty of government-issued verification to settle their suspicions.
Several media outlets got a hold of current and former “trolls” working for the Internet Research Agency and other Kremlin-affiliated groups. Here’s Neil MacFarquhar on a former troll named Aleksei:
They worked in 12-hour shifts, either day or night, and the assigned topics popped up in their email: President Vladimir V. Putin, or President Barack Obama, or often the two together; Ukraine; the heroism of Russia’s Defense Ministry; the war in Syria; Russian opposition figures; the American role in spreading the Ebola virus.
The key words and subject line were always assigned. At the time, the removal of chemical weapons from Syria negotiated under Russian auspices was a favorite topic. Aleksei recalled writing seven or eight blog posts about it. 
The Post catches up with 43-year-old Marat Mindiyarov, a former employee in a troll factory’s “Facebook department.” He made $700 a month working 12-hour days leaving comments on articles:
What sorts of untruths did you write?
My untruths amounted to posting comments. I worked in the commenting department — I had to comment on the news. No one asked me my opinion. My opinions were already written for me, and I had to write in my own words that which I was ordered to write.
For example?
When I was there, there were sanctions [by the European Union and the United States in response to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine] and the ruble started falling. I was writing everything that was the opposite: how wonderful our life was, how wonderful it is that the ruble was strengthening, and that kind of absurdity. That sanctions were going to make us stronger and so on and so forth.
Sitting at the top of this organization is Yevgeny Prigozhin, who the Journal profiled over the weekend. Prigozhin’s statement about the indictment led some to compare him to a Bond villain:
Mr. Prigozhin has previously denied ties to the IRA and on Friday dismissed his indictment. “Americans are very impressionable people. They see what they want to believe,” he told RIA, a Russian news agency. “I respect them greatly. I’m not at all bothered that I’m on that list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
4. What can platforms do about this kind of meddling in the future? The Journal talks to academics and finds skepticism that Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube will have properly secured their platforms in time for the midterm election. In part that’s because bad actors often use their tools in ways the companies hadn’t considered:
The indictment shows that “there are lots of levers that get pulled in social media for the sake of manipulation, and a lot of those levers aren’t even known by the companies themselves,” said Sam Woolley, an Oxford University research associate who has studied propaganda efforts on social-media platforms.
What are platforms doing? Hiring thousands of people, improving internal tools, and praying.
5. What do postcards have to do with it? Facebook revealed one more thing it’s doing to secure the platform over the weekend:
“If you run an ad mentioning a candidate, we are going to mail you a postcard and you will have to use that code to prove you are in the United States,” Harbath said at a weekend conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State, where executives from Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google also spoke.
Some folks rolled their eyes at this — Russians would presumably be able to rent P.O. boxes — but it’s helpful to think of information warfare in the same way you might think of spam. You can’t eliminate spam, but you can make life much, much harder for spammers. Postcards make life harder. 

Democracy
Russia Isn’t the Only One Meddling in Elections. We Do It, Too.
Facebook Won't Release Its “5% Of News Feed Content Is News” Analysis
No one is teaching kids how to spot fake news
Reading the Mueller Indictment: A Russian-American Fraud
Why Is Finland Able to Fend Off Putin’s Information War?
Elsewhere
Facebook admits SMS notifications sent using two-factor number was caused by bug
As promised, Facebook traffic to news publishers declines again, post news-feed change
Nike’s latest Air Jordan sneaker ‘drop’ showcased the potential of Snapchat commerce
Twitter discontinues its Mac desktop app after years of spotty support
Telegram has raised an initial $850M for its billion-dollar ICO
The Mess at Meetup
Launches
Nothing launched today because it is a holiday!
Takes
Why Was Facebook So Easy to Hijack?
What Trump Still Gets Wrong About How Russia Played Facebook
Did Russia Affect the 2016 Election? It’s Now Undeniable
How ad-free subscriptions could solve Facebook
Why Decentralization Matters
And finally ...
Twitter is brutally mocking the fake Black Panther assault stories
Talk to me
Questions? Comments? Story ideas? casey@theverge.com 
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