Was Facebook Pressured Into Finding ‘Something’ to Implicate Russia?
Some people are calling the anti-Russian hysteria being whipped up across the U.S. mainstream news media a new “golden age of American journalism,” although it looks to me more like a new age of yellow journalism, prepping the people for more military spending, more “information warfare” and more actual war.
I know that some people feel that the evidence-lite and/or false allegations about “Russian meddling” are the golden ticket to Trump’s impeachment. But the unprofessional behavior of The New York Times, The Washington Post and pretty much the entire mainstream media regarding Russia-gate cannot be properly justified by the goal of removing Trump from office.
The U.S. mainstream media has clearly joined the anti-Trump Resistance and hates Russian President Vladimir Putin, too. So, we are given such travesties of journalism as appeared as a banner headline across the front page of Monday’s Washington Post, another screed about how Russia supposedly used Facebook ads to flip last November’s election for Trump.
The article purports to give the inside story of how Facebook belatedly came to grips with how the “company’s social network played a key role in the U.S. election,” but actually it is a story about how powerful politicians bullied Facebook into coming up with something – anything – to support the narrative of “Russian meddling,” including direct interventions by President Obama and Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a key legislator regarding regulation of high-tech industries.
In other words, Facebook was sent back again and again to find what Obama and Warner wanted the social media company to find. Eventually, Facebook turned up $100,000 in ads from 2015 into 2017 that supposedly were traced somehow to Russia. These ads apparently addressed political issues in America although Facebook has said most did not pertain directly to the presidential election and some ads were purchased after the election.
Left out of the Post’s latest opus is what a very small pebble these ads were – even assuming that Russians did toss the $100,000 or so in ad buys into the very large lake of billions of dollars in U.S. political spending for the 2016 election cycle. It also amounts to a miniscule fraction of Facebook’s $27 billion in annual revenue.
So the assertion that this alleged “meddling” – and we’ve yet to see any evidence connecting these ads to the Russian government – “played a key role in the U.S. election” is both silly and outrageous, especially given the risks involved in stoking animosities between nuclear-armed Russia and nuclear-armed America.
Even the Post’s alarmist article briefly acknowledges that it is still unclear who bought the ads, referring to the purchasers as “suspected Russian operatives.” In other words, we don’t even know that the $100,000 in ads over three years came from Russians seeking to influence the U.S. election. (By comparison, many Facebook advertisers – even some small businesses – spend $100,000 per day on their ads, not $100,000 over three years.)
Monday’s Post exposé simply asserts the claim as flat fact. Or as the article asserts: “what Russian operatives posted on Facebook was, for the most part, indistinguishable from legitimate political speech. The difference was the accounts that were set up to spread the misinformation and hate were illegitimate.”
In responsible journalism, such an accusation would be followed by a for-instance, giving an example of “the misinformation and hate” that the “Russian operatives” – note how they have been magically transformed from “suspected Russian operatives” to simply “Russian operatives” – were disseminating.
Indeed, what is shown in the article is often contradictory to the story’s conclusion. The article says, for instance, “A review by the company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government. But amid the mass of data the company was analyzing, the security team did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts.”
So, Facebook initially – after extensive searching – did not find evidence of a Russian operation. Then, after continued pressure from high-level Democrats, Facebook continued to scour its system and again found nothing, or as the Post article acknowledged, Facebook “had searched extensively for evidence of foreign purchases of political advertising but had come up short.
That prompted Warner to fly out to Silicon Valley to personally press Facebook executives to come up with the evidence to support the Democrats’ theory about Russia paying for carefully targeted anti-Clinton ads in key districts.
The Post’s article reported that “Finally, [Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex] Stamos appealed to Warner for help: If U.S. intelligence agencies had any information about the Russian operation or the troll farms it used to disseminate misinformation, they should share it with Facebook. The company is still waiting, people involved in the matter said.”
If the context of this story were changed slightly – say, it was about the U.S. government trying to influence public opinion in another country (which actually does happen quite a bit) – the Post would be among the first news outlets to laugh off such allegations or dismiss the vague accusations as a conspiracy theory, but since these allegations fit with the prejudices of the Post’s editors, an entirely different set of journalistic standards is applied.
What the article also ignores is the extraordinary degree of coercion that such high-level political pressure can put on a company that recognizes its vulnerability to government regulation.
In other words, another way to have framed this story is that powerful politicians who could severely harm Facebook’s business model were getting in the face of Facebook executives and essentially demanding that they come up with something to support the Democratic Party’s theory of “Russian meddling.”
Careerist journalists understand that there is no danger in running with the pack – indeed, there is safety in numbers – but there are extraordinary risks to your career if you challenge the conventional wisdom even if you turn out to be right. As one establishment journalist once told me, “there’s no honor in being right too soon.”
So, for the Post reporters responsible for the latest journalistic violation of standards – Adam Entous, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg – there will be no penalty for the offense of telling about Russia’s alleged “disinformation” and “fake news” – rather than showing, i.e., providing actual examples. When it comes to Russia these days – as with the Vietcong in the 1960s or Iraq in 2002-03 – you can pretty much write whatever you want. All journalistic standards are gone.
The extent of Facebook’s internal self-examination became clear in April, when Facebook Chief Security Officer Alex Stamos co-authored a 13-page white paper detailing the results of a sprawling research effort that included input from experts from across the company, who in some cases also worked to build new software aimed specifically at detecting foreign propaganda.
Notably, Stamos’s paper did not raise the topic of political advertising — an omission that was noticed by Capitol Hill investigators. Facebook, worth $495 billion, is the largest online advertising company in the world after Google. Although not mentioned explicitly in the report, Stamos’s team had searched extensively for evidence of foreign purchases of political advertising but had come up short.
A few weeks after the French election, Warner flew out to California to visit Facebook in person. It was an opportunity for the senator to press Stamos directly on whether the Russians had used the company’s tools to disseminate anti-Clinton ads to key districts.
Officials said Stamos underlined to Warner the magnitude of the challenge Facebook faced policing political content that looked legitimate.
Stamos told Warner that Facebook had found no accounts that used advertising but agreed with the senator that some probably existed. The difficulty for Facebook was finding them.
For months, a team of engineers at Facebook had been searching through accounts, looking for signs that they were set up by operatives working on behalf of the Kremlin. The task was immense.
Warner’s visit spurred the company to make some changes in how it conducted its internal investigation. Instead of searching through impossibly large batches of data, Facebook decided to focus on a subset of political ads.
Technicians then searched for “indicators” that would link those ads to Russia. To narrow down the search further, Facebook zeroed in on a Russian entity known as the Internet Research Agency, which had been publicly identified as a troll farm.
“They worked backwards,” a U.S. official said of the process at Facebook.
The breakthrough moment came just days after a Facebook spokesman on July 20 told CNN that “we have seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.”
Facebook’s talking points were about to change.
By early August, Facebook had identified more than 3,000 ads addressing social and political issues that ran in the United States between 2015 and 2017 and that appear to have come from accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency.
After making the discovery, Facebook reached out to Warner’s staff to share what they had learned.