Tow Center

The media today: Social platforms grilled on Russia

November 1, 2017

Welcome to November. Tuesday was day one of long-anticipated Congressional hearings with representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Russia’s presence on the social platforms as it attempted to influence the 2016 election is now well established, and the testimony confirmed that. What still isn’t clear is what impact the attempts actually had.

The platforms confirmed leaked information concerning the extent of attempted Russian influence via ads. Facebook estimated Russian-bought ads were delivered to 126 million people on Facebook; Twitter estimated 131,000 messages; and Google 1,000 YouTube videos.

As for actual impact, the platforms downplayed the reach as a small fraction of their overall ecosystem. But as Mathew Ingram writes for CJR, “The Russian ads in question are not the result of some kind of misunderstanding by regulators or critics of how the social network operates, nor are they the result of a software bug that produced unintended consequences. Instead, the ads are an example of the company’s social machinery working exactly as it was meant to.”

Facebook has not publicly shared the Russian-bought ads it provided to Congress, but two were shown during the hearing, printed on poster board. “Hillary Clinton has a 69 percent disapproval rating among all veterans,” reads one. The other, linking to a pro-Trump event, asserts, “If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.” CNN Money also reported, based on research from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, that ads created by the Russian Internet Research Agency “repeatedly called for violence against different social and political groups in the U.S., including police officers, Black Lives Matter activists and undocumented immigrants.”

While the ads shown in the hearing today had a “sponsored” tag on top, they were far from being clearly labeled as Russian-purchased political ads. As Tow Director Emily Bell writes for The Guardian, there has been a slippage between types of content on social media: “Social media has made a practice—and a fortune—out of erasing traditional boundaries between different types of material. Where once we had propaganda, press releases, journalism and advertising, we now have ‘content.’ Where once we had direct marketing, display advertising and promotions, now we have ‘monetization.’”

Books will be written about what’s surfaced in the past few days. Here’s a brief on the things to read today:

  • Two powerful op-eds from The Washington Post. Margaret Sullivan suggests that collusion pales in the shadow of Facebook’s involvement: “We need to admit the obvious: If there had been no Facebook spreading Russian propaganda, there might well be no President Trump. And there’s little reason to think this kind of influence will wane.… I have little confidence that Facebook will fix itself. And I have even less confidence in the federal government to do the job.” (Maybe, as Moira Weigel suggests, the answer should come from tech workers?)
  • Second up in the Post, Digital Content Next’s Jason Kint argues that Google “could not have been peripheral” in Russia’s attempts to interfere in the election. The online ad market goes almost exclusively to Twitter and Facebook. “Yet,” he writes, “we may never actually know how many political ads Russia or other foreign entities placed on Google during the 2016 election, because, while television stations and cable operators are subject to a wide array of federal oversight, no such rules apply to the king of search.”
  • The New York Times asked nine experts from a range of industries how to fix Facebook. The answers center around design and transparency. Tim Wu, author of The Attention Merchants, is slightly more forceful: “Facebook should become a public benefit corporation.”
  • No matter how much Facebook downplays involvement now, last year they were boasting about their ability to reach voters. On Monday, BuzzFeed published a graphic Facebook gave to political advertisers, bundling its users into political camps across the spectrum.
  • While the focus is on these three tech giants, we shouldn’t forget about WeChat as a venue for mis- and disinformation, writes Tow Fellow Chi Zhang for CJR.
  • Is Twitter a public square? In “Fed Up With Uncivil Discourse Online, Lawmakers Block Their Constituents,” NPR finds local politicians are struggling with appropriate social media use.
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Other notable stories

  • Eight people were killed Tuesday in New York City’s deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11, when a driver drove a pickup truck down a bike path in lower Manhattan.
  • “I want to quit”—”Fox feels like an extension of the Trump White House”: Dylan Byers reports that employees inside the company are mortified by the network’s Russia coverage, or lack thereof.
  • “The conservative media is a giant fog machine designed to confuse and disorient people,” says a former right-wing radio host in an interview with Vox.
  • Michael Oreskes, senior vice president for news at NPR and a CJR board member, has been accused of sexual harassment by two women, The Washington Post reports. Oreskes has been placed on leave, NPR’s David Folkenflik reports.
Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.