Russia Monitor: Are We To Believe Manipulation Of (Anti)Social Media Really Outflanking Tech Giants?



By Dan Peak
The Commoner Call (10/12/17)

Dear Fellow Readers,

As The Washington Post reported Monday, Google finally fund its way into the Russia scandal headlines: Google Uncovers Russian-Bought Ads On YouTube, Gmail And Other Platforms

For the first time the internet titan, Google has uncovered evidence that Russian operatives exploited the company’s social media platforms in a coordinated attempt to interfere in the 2016 election, according to people familiar with the company’s investigation.

The Silicon Valley giant has found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents who aimed to spread disinformation across Google’s many products, which include YouTube, as well as advertising associated with Google Search, Gmail, and the company’s DoubleClick ad network, sources confirmed, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss matters that have not been made public. Google runs the world’s largest online advertising business, and YouTube is the world’s largest online video site.

There are some additional insights offered through the WaPo article worth noting. The ads “do not appear” to originate through the same Russian groups linked to Facebook ads. Google also puts forward assurances that they are taking a “deeper look”. What’s been found to date is less than $100,000 in ads.

Google has responded with assurances of their “strict ads policies”. And issued assurances of more investigation, including working with researchers and providing assistance to ongoing inquiries.

It’s like Google, Facebook and Twitter went to the same tech company public relations training classes. While Facebook has garnered the most attention to date, including a clear pattern over many months of denial, Google and Twitter have followed the same old game plan.

There’s a range of possible explanations for the behavior of these companies:

1) denial is meant to limit the risk of breaking U.S. law,

2) these companies aren’t expert on their own platforms though this is challenged by the $70 million the Trump campaign spent with Brad Parscale with direct assistance from Facebook, or

3) the Russians really are experts at the use of social media while influencing the US election for the benefit of Trump.

Could the Russians be more expert than the tech firms they’ve used to Trump’s advantage?

For a more in-depth explanation, here’s Rachel Maddow explaining both the timing and the abuses: US Tech Giants Oddly Unhelpful On Russia.

I’m guessing the limited use reported by these companies will ultimately prove to be a small part of what really happened in the 2016 election. 

Rachel Maddow characterizes the assistance offered by Facebook, Twitter and Google to figuring out just what happened as less than forthcoming. More accurately, they have to be dragged “kicking and screaming” to a point of cooperation. Only after many months of disclosures, fueled by media investigation, has there any cooperation by big tech. And the facts that are disclosed are largely the result of media work.

Maddow offers detail on six of the Russian groups that advertised on Facebook. Their work resulted in 340 million ‘shares’. Just six of the groups out of the 470 accounts identified to date were responsible for 340 million shares’. This is only 1% of the groups identified to date – do the math.

Maddow’s guest is The Washington Post Silicon Valley correspondent Elizabeth Dwoskin. She broke the first story linked above. The main focus of her discussion with Maddow is of the slow support offered investigators by the three tech behemoths.

Also, in contrast to the headline of the article, Dwoskin says Google did not admit anything but commented only after her work for The Washington Post. And their vague, gauzy comments are still not an admission. Facebook knew well in advance in 2016 and set the standard for the foot dragging denials and obfuscation non-disclosures we now see from their fellow tech companies.

As Maddow points out, these companies are huge and hugely successful. Their expertise is data, data mining and data specificity. Here’s a few facts and figures to keep in mind whenever we hear the tech giants playing slow:

  1. Google has annual revenue of $90,000,000,000 and net income of $19,470,000,000. Their market capitalization is over $600,000,000,000.
  2. Facebook has annual revenue of $27,640,000,000 and net income of $10,000,000,000. Their market capitalization is over $497,290,000,000.
  3. Twitter has annual revenue of $602,000,000 and lost money in 2016.

The story is behind a pay firewall, but here’s how The Financial Times described the situation for Facebook: Is Facebook Spinning Out Of Control Over Russian Revelations?

Like a shamed company announcing a product recall, Facebook bought full-page adverts in The New York Times and The Washington Post last week in an attempt to shore up its bruised reputation. It was not suspending the social network that has become a ubiquitous news source and multibillion-dollar ad machine. But Russia’s weaponisation of Facebook to influence last year’s U.S. election has raised grave questions about whether Mark Zuckerberg’s product is spinning out of control.


Russian Expert Use Of Social Media To Influence The Election Is Only One Thread

The Washington Post’s Dwoskin says that if the tech companies were to be forthcoming they would probably have to show the world how their platforms can be manipulated.

Too late, Russia already figured that out!

Dwoskin also points out, in a close election, if you can influence a small number of people in critical congressional districts – or even individual precincts – you can have impact. Russian use and manipulation of social media to disrupt the election and benefit Trump is only one part of the story. We’ve yet to learn very much about the use of data for micro-targeting as an adjunct to the use of social media. We’ve already looked at voter disenfranchisement in swing states like North Carolina and Wisconsin, where some 200,000 voters were suppressed. There is even some question of whether the vote tally was hacked in favor of Trump – or to be more accurate – we don’t know for sure that it wasn’t.


Some are beginning to wonder if things didn’t go far beyond placng ads and fake news on social media and actual votes were tampered with: Did Russia Hack the 2016 Vote Tally? This Senator Says We Don’t Know For Sure

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) also raises questions about the Senate’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation.

We know the Senate Intelligence Committee has acknowledged Russia did indeed hack the election. But while Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) attempts to ring-fence the issues to the benefit of Trump, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Or) offers a more cautionary statement:

“First, Burr declared that although Russian hackers had probed or penetrated the election systems of at least 21 states, he could confidently state that the Russian meddling in the 2016 election resulted in no changes to the vote tallies. That is, there’s no reason to question Trump’s Electoral College win. And second, Burr said that Russia’s use of Facebook ads during the presidential campaign seemed “indiscriminate” and not designed to help a particular candidate—meaning the recent revelations do not bolster the case that Trump was the Kremlin’s choice.

“But Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), a feisty member of the intelligence committee, says both assertions are bunk. In an interview with Mother Jones on Thursday, Wyden argued that Burr’s confidence in the election system was unwarranted. “The chairman said that he can say ‘certifiably’ that there was no vote tampering,” said Wyden. “I do not agree with this judgment. I don’t think it is possible to know that. There was no systematic analysis of the voting or forensic evaluations of the voting machines.”

“Wyden pointed out that the Department of Homeland Security has noted that its assessment that there was no finagling with the vote count was made with only “moderate confidence.” For Wyden, that’s not good enough for such a sensitive and significant matter—and it sends the misguided signal that the voting system is doing just fine. Wyden believes that’s the wrong message. This week he sent a letter to the major manufacturers of voting machines demanding information about how they protect themselves from cyberattacks.”

Sadly we’ve seen some signs of partisanship with the Senate Intelligence Committee, as we have with the Senate Judiciary Committee. Though there is no comparison to Rep. Dana Nunes (R-CA) and his partisan leadership of the House Intelligence Committee, even after he recused himself.

Here’s more of Wyden’s concerns:

“Wyden also said that Burr erred in declaring that the Russian Facebook ads—some of which targeted swing states—did not favor a presidential candidate. (Presumably Wyden has seen or been briefed on the content of the ads.) “That’s one reason why the ads need to be released to the American people,” Wyden remarked, “so Americans can make up their minds.”

“At the press conference, Burr said the committee would not be releasing the ads, which Facebook has turned over to the panel. And Facebook so far has declined to make the ads public. Wyden and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the committee, have called on Facebook to release the material. “If the ads don’t come out,” Wyden noted, “it’s within the power of the committee to get them out.” The Russian social media campaign targeting the 2016 election, Wyden said, “certainly hasn’t gotten the attention it should have.” And he noted it has been a focus of his efforts on the intelligence committee. The intelligence committee has scheduled a hearing with representatives from Facebook, Google, and Twitter for November 1.”

Country Before Party And Thank Goodness For Special Prosecutor Mueller

It’s hard to believe Republicans can’t put country before party to assure the integrity of our elections. I know, I sense your incredulity with that statement given the GOP efforts to disenfranchise voters and their weaponization of gerrymandering. I hope for support from the Supreme Court on these two points. I believe with the work of the committees we’d be putting the various leather-bound committee findings in a few libraries and on a few shelves for posterity while ignoring the facts and the risk related to the Trump-Russia manipulation of our election; a cynical, partisan ‘call it done and move to tax reform’.

For me, the assurance “they will be back” rings in my ears but maybe the GOP, the party in charge, presumes that any future influence will also be to their benefit, so why close the barn door. I can only hope that Trump’s behavior has the GOP paying a heavy price for their dark complicity. It’s a denial of two things – the toxicity of Trump and his collusion with Russia.

Thank goodness for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.