How Much Should We Care About Russian Social Media Advertising?

One of the many things being looked at in conjunction with the Mueller and Senate investigations of Russian influence in the 2016 election is the purchase of social media ads by alleged Russian owned/influenced entities. Axios has a review of this How the Russians operated under our radar.

How it worked: These were similar tactics used by spammers trying to traffic web pages to sell ads against them. Outlets like BuzzFeed News and The Daily Beast have done a particularly good job of looking in the right places:

  • Advertising on automated platforms, where the currency comes from Russia and the ads are micro-targeted to social and political groups.
  • Fake social media accounts and pages that spur divisive messaging from people who seem to have false identities or fake/bot accounts.
  • Insidious messaging around key social, political news events, like Black Lives Matter or the Muslim ban.

Here is the bottom line:

  • Google: “Tens of thousands” of ad dollars were spent across Google platforms, and were bought by a different group than the one that bought ads on Facebook.
  • Facebook: $100,000: Facebook says $100,000 of ads were purchased by Russian-backed groups on the platform and used targeting technology to reach certain people.
  • Twitter: $270,000+: Twitter said it sold more than $270,000 of ads to Russia-linked accounts during the 2016 election
  • By comparison: We’ve publicly uncovered less than a half million in paid spending by Russians groups so far [editors italics and note–less than $500k…srsly?]. The Trump and Clinton campaigns collectively spent an estimated $800 million on Google and Facebook alone. Right now, the scale is not there on the paid side, but there’s probably more to come.

And some of the analysis is utter bullsh**

Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, has been tracking Russian Facebook and ad tech use for months. His latest report looks at the organic tactics used by Russian-controlled pages, links and engagements that he estimates could have reached or influenced hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

C’mon, man. There aren’t “billions” of English speaking internet users in the world. There were only 123 million votes (plus or minus) cast in 2016. The complete universe of voters isn’t “hundreds of millions.” And if this estimate is accurate how many people did the $800 million spent by Clinton and Trump “reach or influence?”

Two questions need to be asked here. Is this a problem?

From the standpoint of ad volume I don’t think so. The half-million spent by the Russians was dwarfed by US political ads from the major candidates. When you lump in issue ads from various (c)4 organizations and “voter education” from (c)3 organizations, the Russian expenditure was not even a blip. If the Russians were spending in the $100 million range, that would be an issue but what has been documented is about 0.006% of total expenditures. Worrying about that seems a lot like pole vaulting over mouse dung, but let’s keep looking.

As a commenter on another thread observed:

The reason(s) the “Russian Ad Problem” won’t go away is because, essentially, they’re materially indistinguishable from the constant deluge of 501(c)3 issue oriented ads which pit both sides against the middle in an effort to agitate, deceive, obfuscate, educate, motivate and/or otherwise persuade the middle to pick a side… And… They’re socially, culturally and/or politically oriented… constitutionally protected… free speech… It’s an inherent feature/flaw of our constitutionally protected representative republic…

The only real solution is to reclaim the mandate of academic freedom and change the direction of our failed government institutions of higher propaganda…

Because we can’t put an end or seek to criminalize political speech, nor should any sane, rational person actually want to…

I completely agree.

But, arguendo, if you want to prevent Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale from giving Mark Zuckerberg their money, how do we solve the problem without making it worse?

In McIntyre vs. Ohio Elections Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that anonymous political speech was protected political speech. This seems to imply that the “viral” Facebook posts festooned with “fake news”  that allegedly influenced 100,000 voters in districts that had voted for Obama in 2012 to vote for Trump are protected from any regulation by Congress.

The watershed Citizens United vs. FEC case said corporations had an unlimited ability to buy ads on their own behalf. This would seem to imply that a shell corporation could buy ads free of federal interference.

So it would seem that whatever cure is available is probably outside the realm of a legislative one.

Having said that, Twitter, Facebook, etc., all have a legal right to decline ads. The question there becomes the degree to which we want them to have that ability. Marsha Blackburn had a Twitter announcement pulled because it referred to the sale of body parts from aborted babies. If that is the threshold that will be applied, how comfortable are we that our messages on the Second Amendment, the traditional family, the sanctity of life, on school choice, and on and on, will be viable?

The other side of that coin is how would major social media organizations go about vetting the billions of dollars ads that they pass along each day. In short order, vetting those ads sufficiently to determine taht they are from “legitimate” advertisers, however we would define that, would soon price the small ad buyer out of the market. You might not think that is a bad idea but you can’t ignore what the impact would be on small retailers and the burgeoning non-traditional publishing industry that Amazon has created.

And what should we do when suspected foreign ads enter an ongoing debate and takes one side or the other? How is an advertiser supposed to sort them out? How can they recognize small non-profit groups who don’t plan on raising tax-exempt contributions as legitimate–and therefore have nothing more than an IRS EIN–and separate them from astroturf groups affiliated with some Russian group or government agency?

As it stands right now, I think foreign purchases of political ads on social media are just part of the landscape. We need to learn to live with it because every possible solution seems, to me, to be much worse than the disease itself.