Tow Center

The media today: The tip of the Russian iceberg

October 11, 2017
Image: AP

With every week that goes by, the extent of Russian involvement in American political life seems to deepen. This past week, Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, shed light in The Washington Post on the reach of Russian posts on Facebook, and the range of other sites touched by the foreign effort. (If you need to catch up, Axios’s Sara Fischer has a good primer on what we know about the disinformation operation so far.)

Albright showed that content from just six of the roughly 470 Russian Facebook pages and accounts associated with the Russian troll farm was shared about 340 million times. Prior to Albright’s post, Facebook had forked over 3,000 Russian ads to Congress, and said those ads reached 10 million users. “The primary push to influence wasn’t necessarily through paid advertising,” Albright told the Post. “The best way to understand this from a strategic perspective is organic reach.”

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This week, The New York Times published a front-page story featuring the research on organic reach, highlighting the fact that the Russian campaign did not have to create the content, it only had to share it with “the same promotional tools that people employ to share cat videos, airline complaints, and personal rants.”

Finally, the buck does not stop with Facebook. The Post on Monday reported “Google found that tens of thousands of dollars were spent on ads by Russian agents whose targets included Google’s YouTube and Gmail services.” While Google has not spoken publicly about this, Albright’s research into ad networks corroborates the anonymous reporting: “Albright has found links to Russian disinformation on Pinterest, YouTube and Instagram, as well as Twitter, Facebook and Google. Clicking on links on any of these sites allowed Russian operatives to identify and track Web users ­wherever they went on the Internet.”

The bottom line is the same mechanisms that enabled Russian influence were the websites we count on every day to surface what we want to read, and to help things go viral.

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Other notable stories

  • A must-read, if you haven’t seen it already. Ronan Farrow’s bombshell piece at The New Yorker relays detailed accounts from several of Harvey Weinstein’s accusers. (And quite a moment on Rachel Maddow’s show last night, when she asked Farrow, an NBC contributor, why his Weinstein story didn’t air on the network.) Plus, Tina Brown recounts working with Weinstein at Talk
  • “Not enough male journalists have forcefully spoken out against sexist attitudes towards female sports reporters.” A piece from Nieman Reports reflects on a sexist comment from NFL quarterback Cam Newton toward a female reporter.
  • The New York Times announced its first gender editor, Jessica Bennett. “I think for a place like the Times,” Bennett told Teen Vogue, “this type of content needs to exist throughout every section of the paper.”
  • Google News Lab partnered with the American Society of News Editors to visualize survey data on newsroom diversity.
  • “Join us on our journey into the life of North Korea.” Reuters reveals a new section called “North Korea in Focus.” Read a note from Reuters Editor Stephen Adler (also on CJR’s board) on the decision.
Nausicaa Renner is digital editor of CJR.