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The Facebook ads placed by a Russian troll farm and released Wednesday show the Russian propaganda campaign of 2016 didn’t favor either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Instead, it mocked and goaded America.
This directly contradicts US intelligence assessments. “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election,” the assessment released in January stated. “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference” for Trump.
If the ads placed by the St. Petersburg Internet Research Agency, a troll collective linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Kremlin-connected restaurateur, reflect the strategy of the influence campaign, the intelligence community was wrong. The ads backed white nationalist as well as black causes. They often targeted Clinton before the election but switched to attacking Trump afterward. The ads against both were even visually similar.
A conceivable defense of the intelligence conclusion is that you can’t interfere in the election after the voters have chosen, so only the anti-Clinton bias of the Russian campaign really made a difference. That argument is lame, however.
Neither the trolls with their tiny budgets (at best, hundreds of thousands of dollars compared with the hundreds of millions spent by the candidates and their US backers) nor Russian state media with their laughable reach could’ve hoped to shape the election outcome. That would assume they knew more about US-based influence tools than the entire US political industry.
Even today, the best Russian experts on the political uses of the social networks believe it would’ve been impossible to tip the scales. Leonid Volkov, an Internet entrepreneur and campaign manager to Putin’s No. 1 domestic foe Alexei Navalny, wrote on Facebook on Thursday:
“When people discuss, in all seriousness, ‘election interference’ by means of $100,000 worth of Facebook ads (hundreds of times less than the Clinton and Trump campaigns spent on FB ads), when leading political publications show as ‘proof’ hellish pictures the most viral of which garnered all of 200,000 views (and most got only a few thousand; 500 rubles — not thousand dollars, not even dollars — was spent on promoting some of them) . . . it is, above all, simply shameful.
“Darn, we got a total of 2 million views for our social network ads before a rally in Astrakhan, and it cost us 20,000 rubles.”
The trolls, on entry-level salaries of about $1,000 a month, are far less savvy than Navalny’s. The silly mistakes they made in their English — the misuse of modal verbs, the missing articles, the clumsy turns of phrase — are evidence they were the lowest of info-war foot soldiers.
They weren’t playing to win the election, just to stir things up. They weren’t Republicans or Democrats: These parties don’t operate in St. Petersburg. They were trolls, happy to make a dent here, create a disturbance there.
The campaign was not tied to election timelines: It’s permanent, and it will go on while the United States and Russia are adversaries. Elections and government changes that do nothing to alter the relationship between countries are just a useful background for propaganda, disinformation and sheer trollery because they politicize the audience and draw its attention to the divisive issues that propagandists exploit. Instability and confusion are the primary goals, and they’re easy to achieve on the cheap.
The Kremlin’s goal was not to promote either candidate. Though Putin made no secret of his special dislike for Clinton, he was never short-sighted enough to trust Trump — and no one in a position of power in Russia ever indicated that he did. The influence campaign’s real goal was to amplify America’s organic discord and undermine trust in institutions.
The hearings about the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube ads, with angry senators and squirming corporate lawyers hoping to avoid heavy-handed, misguided regulation, serve this purpose even better than the original ads did. US legislators look powerless; the Americans who were supposedly taken in by the cheap, badly made ads look ignorant.
US intelligence agencies look politicized and incapable of serious analysis, let alone an effective resistance, when it comes to Russian “active measures.”
The fit of US self-flagellation likely goes beyond the trolls’ and propagandists’ wildest dreams. A great nation, with the world’s best-funded and most professional media and an institutional framework other nations could only dream of, ought to be able to ignore the Russian propagandists’ pitiful, incompetent efforts.
©2017, Bloomberg View