From Defense One:
The key takeaways from three days of testimony about Russia’s electoral mischief during the 2016 election.
During three Congressional hearings spread over two days, we heard a lot of bluster from senators and pat answers from tech-company lawyers about the role their firms played in the 2016 election.
...MUCH MOREScattered among all the questions, some new facts entered the public record. Here we attempt to catalog the important new information we learned. Some of the biggest disclosures came in the prepared testimony from Facebook, Twitter, and Google, as well as in the introduction from the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina and Senator Mark Warner of Virginia.
These topline numbers keep going up, and we hadn’t known that the influence campaign extended to Instagram. This information seems to have only reached the Senate committee in the last couple of days.
- Russian electoral disinformation reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million on Instagram. That’s 146 million total.
The $100,000 of advertising that has been a big focus of Congressional interest was used primarily to build audiences for a variety of Russian-linked pages. In other words, they paid to buy likes and build the distribution channels through which they would pump disinformation.
- Most Russian advertising on Facebook was used to build up pages, which then distributed their content “organically.”
3. Some of the Russian-linked Facebook ads were remarkably effective, receiving response rates as high as 24 percent, in a sample of 14 ads released by the House Intelligence Committee.
Fourteen ads and the metadata that Facebook provided about them have now passed into the public domain. An analysis of that metadata shows that the ads racked up very few impressions, but that the click-through rate on the ads was very, very, very high. According to a couple dozen digital-marketing people whom I’ve been in touch with, as well as my own direct previous experience, this is about the maximum possible performance one could get.
As a result of the ad campaign and the evident audience-building skill of the Russian trolls, approximately 3.3 million Americans ended up following a Russian page, based on Facebook’s data, according to Senator Warner. That’s a lot of people. So far, Facebook has not committed to notifying any of them or us.
- 3.3 million Americans directly followed one of the Russian Facebook pages.
Even given the skill and reach of the Russian disinformation campaign, based on what we know, it is highly unlikely that the ads—or the campaign as a whole—swung the election. The amount of Russian content on Facebook was a tiny sliver of the overall content (or political discussion) on the platform.
- Despite that, with the evidence on hand, it would be impossible to say that the campaign swung the election.
To swing the election, the campaign would have had to be highly targeted in the states that decided the election: Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Senator Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, opened the hearing with some important numerical context. The ad spends in those states were tiny. The total amount spent targeting Wisconsin was a mere $1,979; all but $54 was spent prior to the completion of the primary, and none of the ads even mentioned Trump. The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania was even smaller. The organic reach in these states was undoubtedly larger, but based on everything we’ve seen or been told by Congress, and given the tremendous resources at play in the U.S. presidential election, the known aspects of the Russian disinformation campaign could not have played a major role even in the states that were decided by very few votes.
All of this is premised on the idea that this is all there is to the disinformation campaign. That could turn out to be wrong, but this is all that Congress has managed to extract from the companies, and (presumably) all that the companies have managed to extract from themselves.
There had been some speculation that the most effective way to swing the election would be to target small numbers of voters in the three key northern states. That may very well be true, but Facebook and Twitter both said they had seen no evidence of the voter file being used to build specific audiences....
- Neither Facebook nor Twitter has seen evidence that Russian pages used voter data to target ads or posts.