Spinoff: Whatever The Reports About Russian Trolls Buying Ads Is Initially, It's Way, Way Worse

from the multiplication dept

With several reports about data breaches occurring over the past few years, we’ve developed something of a mantra around here: it’s always, always worse than first reported. Yahoo just went through this having finally admitted that literally every email account was compromised way back in 2013 after having first said it was only a few hundred thousand accounts that were impacted. Deloitte and Equifax followed this same playbook with their own breaches, trickling out little by little just how wide an impact those hacks had achieved.

And now we’re seeing something of a spinoff of that mantra when it comes to the impact Russian trolls and the now infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) advertising buys had on Facebook. You may recall that everything about this story seemed fairly minimalist in the initial reporting. The amount of money spent on the ad-buy itself was low enough to induce eyerolls from many. Facebook itself estimated that 11.4 million people saw ads bought by the IRA over the course of two years or so, which is not the kind of number that sets off all four alarms at the democracy firehouse. But Facebook has now given everyone a better idea of how much reach these ads actually had. And these numbers are far more alarming.

Facebook will inform lawmakers this week that roughly 126 million Americans may have been exposed to content generated on its platform by the Russian government-linked troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency between June 2015 and August 2017, CNN has learned. In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, a copy of which was obtained by CNN, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch says that 29 million people were served content directly from the Internet Research Agency, and that after sharing among users is accounted for, a total of “approximately 126 million people” may have seen it.

Facebook does not know, however, how many of those 126 million people actually saw one of those posts, or how many may have scrolled past it or simply not logged in on the day that one of the posts was being served in their News Feed.

The inability to nail down just how many eyeballs viewed these ads is, of course, due to the nature of social media. Buying the ads and targeting primary viewers of them is one thing, but it’s the sharing and re-sharing of those ads that extend their reach exponentially. And it’s quite nice of Facebook to come right out and admit that it actually has no idea how many people viewed these ads, even as it offers up estimates to the contrary.

This is a feature of a social media platform like Facebook, not a bug. And, to the IRA’s credit, it’s a brilliant and inexpensive method for having some measure of influence in a foreign country’s democracy. Facebook builds a sharing tool and these folks take advantage of the very nature of that tool.

Which is what makes Facebook’s attempt to downplay all of this all the more perplexing.

Nevertheless, Facebook says in its testimony that the posts from those pages represented “a tiny fraction of the overall content on Facebook.”

“This equals about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content,” Stretch writes. “Put another way, if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from the IRA.”

Except, as Facebook and Colin Stretch damned well know, Facebook doesn’t operate anything remotely like television. Nor do its ads. The engagement process of those ads is wildly different. The ability to share those ads is not a feature of television. The granular targeting for eyeballs of those ads is simply not something that can be achieved by television advertising. The geographic targeting specifically, with an eye on influencing votes and the outcome of an election, is simply not a feature available to traditional television advertising. I know why Facebook wants to pretend otherwise in this instance, but it simply isn’t true.

So, even as some are trying to downplay the impact, and even the existence, of this foreign intervention into our election cycle, it’s worth acknowledging that these things, like data breaches, tend to be worse than first reported. And no obfuscation from Facebook about how much like television it is can change the raw numbers, or its acknowledgement that it doesn’t actually know how many people saw this stuff.

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Companies: facebook, internet research agency, twitter

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Comments on “Spinoff: Whatever The Reports About Russian Trolls Buying Ads Is Initially, It's Way, Way Worse”

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Anonymous Coward says:

HUH? Your bias seems to have missed KEY point:

“Facebook says Russia-linked ads that reached millions of Americans continued to ‘sow division’ and **undermine Trump – not Hillary** – even AFTER the 2016 election”

Now: OMG! “four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content”!!! — YOU are insane trying to stretch that into “Democracy at risk!!!!” That’s LITERALLY like saying that me putting the word “wok” here means this is a Chinese blog.

Techdirt has become so insane that it’s not even fun any more.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: HUH? Your bias seems to have missed KEY point:

If you remember, facebook has algorithms that determine what content you can see. This can (and does) very much lead to people being grouped into like-minded peers, creating a walled off community of sorts.

This means should one person see something, they have a chance of spreading it. Much like a vine, that content can spread throughout the closed off community.

That being said, what do you think would happen if enough like-minded people had a negative reaction to the same piece of content? I think it’s likely they would build off each other’s anger. A large mass of angry people can mean a lot of trouble.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: HUH? Your bias seems to have missed KEY point:

You miss the point.

No one ever actually scrolls through all 23,000 pieces of content in their news feed, just like no one reads all the books in a library – but people do tend to browse the best-sellers.

The real question is not what percentage of books in the library are propaganda; it’s how many bought their way onto the best-sellers list.

AC says:

Can we trust Facebook here?

There are two ways to play this.

1. Sure we sold 146 million ads, but 78% were served to clickfarms. 12% of the remainder were preloaded on pages below the screen threshold and were never actually viewed and the rest were spammed out 4 at a time to users in Texas because they matched the customer demographic.

2. Facebook advertising singlehandedly altered the election results in America with just 146 million ad purchases. Imagine what we can do for you!

Anonymous Coward says:

Why size does not matter

We have no clue what exposure to 1 million eyeballs does to an election campaign, nor to 100 million eyeballs.

The magnitude of a “preferred candidate” swing is not measured in eyeballs nor posts nor clicks.

There is more work to be done in the USA to understand why the voters bought into the winning narrative; and why they were motivated to vote against the losing candidate.

Imagine running the experiment again or elsewhere (bombarding the electorate with facebook ads) and planning out how you will formulate your memes to go viral. If your goal is to convince a democratic population to choose a tv celebrity (reject a career politician) then the only pressing question is how many additional voters do we need to persuade. So how many did they persuade?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Why size does not matter

Why? Why the hell do we need to analyze the last election???

We wouldn’t have analyzed a damn thing if Hillary had won.

But apparently you cannot bear that the most unappealing Democratic candidate in a Century could have possibly just plain lost the election by failing to amass enough electoral votes. Its Completely Unpossible!!!! It just HAS to be Russian mind control!!!

In other news Tim Geigner continues his audition for SLATE….

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Why size does not matter

“We wouldn’t have analyzed a damn thing if Hillary had won.”

Maybe because they beat those horses to death already?
– Dead Horse Theory .. “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”

I’m quite certain there would be a plethora of “analysis” by Fox News and other fake news sites. It is truly amazing how much bullshit can be generated by these non thinking people.

Anonymous Coward says:

The real story here is feeding to the false news narrative and now future stories will get accused of being Russian bots. There will be confusion and argument about the validity of any news story and the Kremlin will be laughing. This is also the narrative pushed by 45. Knowledge is power. What is the opposite of that? Ignorance is bliss?

Anonymous Coward says:

Of course it's worse

Facebook is rotten, top-to-bottom. Of course it starts with sociopath Mark Zuckerberg, one of the most truly evil people on the planet, but it doesn’t end there.

The technical staff at Facebook are utterly incapable of operating it properly. It’s vastly beyond their inferior capabilities, which is why the site is riddled with security holes, privacy issues, infiltration by outsiders, etc. — and thus is very, VERY easy mark for anyone wanting to subvert it. These are ignorant newbies characterized by systemic incompetence and negligence: oh sure, they brag about their scale all the time, but that’s just their bloated egos talking. The reality is that this pack of worthless clowns isn’t good enough to run an operation a thousandth the size of Facebook.

This disclosure is only the tip of the iceberg. The reality is FAR worse. Facebook (along with other sites) was weaponized because it COULD be weaponized — easily, cheaply, and quickly. It’s still being used as a weapon because the idiots running it are much too stupid to put a stop to it: they didn’t see it coming, they don’t really see it now, and they have no idea what to do.

The best thing to do would be to shut it down permanently. Right now.

383bigblock (profile) says:

Its just a game....everyone plays it.

Time for a reality check. So what if the Russians bought ads, anyone can buy an ad, anyone can put up a fake news site or spin site to influence people. We have that problem now, its called ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and CNN. They pushed biased news throughout the election supporting crooked Hilary or targeting President Trump. They are well known Liberal supporters, we’ve just grown used to it. Now there is FOX news which pushes back the other direction. There is all kinds of political noise on TV, the WEB, in the pulpits on Sundays, news magazines, etc. It’s all part of the game and everyone plays the game on both sides of the aisle. To now cry foul because the liberals backed the wrong candidate is the pot calling the kettle black. The Dems can pay to have a fake dossier built and leaked to the press to undermine President Trump but should someone do something like that to one of them….well that’s just not fair.

This whole Russian collusion on the election is a joke. Besides, what if they did…there is no law against it. There is no law that says you cannot work with a foreign government to aid your political election. Collusion sounds bad but what does that actually mean criminally that is tied to a statute on the books somewhere. If someone has that info then post a link here and let us read it.

Otherwise, its time to move on. Right now I feel like all anyone wants to do is be the hero that takes down the standing president of the United States so that the world can sit back and look at how pathetic and petty we all are.

dddimwrong (profile) says:

Re: Its just a game....everyone plays it.

Talk about a joke,I have yet to see a single shred of evidence that the ads in question were in fact actually funded by anyone in Russia. Just because someone turns on Russian translation on their view of a web site doesn’t necessarily prove they are Russian anymore than someone turning on Japanese means they are Japanese. Show me the accounts the money came from and who controls those accounts.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Its just a game....everyone plays it.

Its just a game….everyone plays it.


We have that problem now, its called ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC, and CNN. They pushed biased news throughout the election supporting crooked Hilary or targeting President Trump.

Ah yes, I remember how NBC spent the entire election blowing Trump’s private e-mail server out of proportion while giving Hillary Clinton billions of dollars in free advertising, including a hosting gig on SNL. Damn biased liberal media.

The Dems can pay to have a fake dossier built and leaked to the press to undermine President Trump but should someone do something like that to one of them….well that’s just not fair.

Yes, I hate it when politicians whine about how something is very unfair all the time. What kind of giant baby does that?

There is no law that says you cannot work with a foreign government to aid your political election.

There is a law that says you can’t solicit contributions from a foreign national. It’s called the Federal Election Campaign Act.

Right now I feel like all anyone wants to do is be the hero that takes down the standing president of the United States so that the world can sit back and look at how pathetic and petty we all are.

If you think it’s Trump’s removal from office that would weaken the US’s international reputation, you’re either delusional or you experience time in a different direction than the rest of us.

HegemonicDistortion says:

The causality here is entirely reversed. These troll ads didn’t “sow discord,” they were “successful” precisely because of great extant discord. The idea that racial disharmony, or antipathy toward the political establishment, was started or influenced by Russians is on its face absurd.

This “influence campaign” narrative has evolved with changing facts. At first they were said to clearly be about supporting Trump. Then when that was exposed as false it was changed to “sowing discord,” a term so meaningless as to be utterly useless. When Facebook found that some of these posts were just about puppies, people like Clint Watts hilariously tried to spin that as ominous unknown future operation.

What it really shows, though, is that any Russian trolls were taking advantage of discord and puppy cuteness to drive ad clicks and shares. There’s a reason they’re a troll farm.

Scratch just below the surface of these pro “Russia influence campaign” pushers and you’ll find neocon hawks (like Max Boot, Bill Kristol, etc.), clueless Hollywood liberals (like Rob Reiner), and Hillary campaign officials and cultists. It’s an especially appealing narrative for the last two groups, because it conveniently explains away their electoral loss and allows comfy white (neo-)liberals to feel righteous while avoiding any need for more fundamental reform needed to confront racism and economic inequality. These are the very tactics used in the 50s and 60s to undermine civil rights and pro-worker advocates.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“The idea that racial disharmony, or antipathy toward the political establishment, was started or influenced by Russians is on its face absurd. “

Correct – the racism, sexism, class warfare and jingoistic desire for world dominance was there long before either Russia or the US existed. Humans are assholes – film at eleven.

Anonymous Coward says:

Surprised at TD

CNN is a corporate cabal propaganda haus. Accordingly, whatever they say can be regarded as a gambit for a subsequent legislative play.

You want to sock puppet for CNN while it stirs up resentment for the 1st amendment you can do that. But I won’t be reading that garbage. What the fuck do you think they are going to do with all this antipathy they’re creating?

There are laws related to this issue. There has been foreign money in domestic politics since the beginning. There are a number of laws that relate to this. If your unwilling to talk about the related legal theory, then you might as well BE CNN.

So WTF? Care to speak up Mike? You bucking to get bought out by Time Warner?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Surprised at TD

Reality has a liberal bias … so what.

When people talk left/right it is difficult to ascertain what they think the entire political spectrum looks like. I have asked … and holy shit! It is amazing – some folk do not recognize anything “left” of what used to be center because that is now the new left and what was right is now radical far right. Just try telling this type person that the entire spectrum has been shifted to the right – hilarity ensues.

McGyver (profile) says:

You know what we need is early education to view all advertising skeptically and objectively.
Granted this would never be done because one way or another both the left and the right would turn it into a shitty abomination.
Apparently like common sense, objectivity is more of a rare gift then a normal human trait.
Somehow people need to be taught how read between the lines to see when they are being played, because this type of shit is reaching epic levels of unsustainability and the stupidity bubble will eventually have to burst.
Sadly it’s not just “dumb” people that bought into the crap the Russians were plying them with… stupid perhaps, but dumb and stupid are really different for the most part, as dumb is just dull and stupid is usually a conscious choice and its quite clear plenty of people who should have known better ate this bullshit up with gusto because it made them fell better or at least played well with their fears and frustrations.
You can’t censor every idiot out there and you can’t stop people who want to be shitheads, but even if it’s a small percentage of the eyeballs out there, more has to be done to educate people to at least take a stab at being objective.

Chuck says:

The real issue...

…is that people are stupid.

No, really. Hear me out on this.

According to the ancient Greeks (because just like Jesus never rode atop a T-Rex, America did not invent Democracy…) two, and only two, things were absolutely, positively essential for a functional democracy. That is, if you have these two things, despite everything else, your democracy will endure, and if you don’t have these two things, no matter what else, your democracy will eventually crumble to dust.

What were these two mystical qualities a democracy just HAS to have? In short, turnout and intelligence:

1) The citizenry must be well informed.
2) The citizenry must actually vote.

Now, we can discuss mandatory voting (I like to call it “use-it-or-lose-it voting rights”) but that’s not what’s relevant here. The real problem with all of this crap is simple. People are so horribly, terribly poorly informed that they were actually susceptible to this crap in the first place. I mean, we live in a country where nearly 40% of our citizens dismiss something that has more support in the scientific community than GRAVITY. Yes, gravity actually has fewer scholarly works published in its favor than climate change! And yet a solid 34%-39% dismiss it as some sort of hoax (Chinese, liberal, take your pick.)

This is the REAL threat to democracy. People are dumb. They know absolutely nothing and learn even less. Our citizenry is more interested in feeding their own confirmation bias than, yanno, actually being INFORMED. News flash: if your “non-fake news” is telling you something you both already knew and already agree with, it’s definitely not news, and it’s probably very, very fake.

I’m not saying the whole Russian ad campaign for Mr. Trump isn’t a problem, but it’s a symptom, not a cause. The real, underlying threat to democracy is that stupid people vote.

Unfortunately, to fix it, we’d have to elect a full set of liberals, and then move to a European education model with more emphasis on teaching our kids how to learn (logic, reasoning skills, critical thinking, etc.) and less emphasis on just regurgitating useless tidbits of information every 30 days, and even then, it’d take 50 years before we feel the effects of such an enlightenment.

Better start in 2018. I wanna see the world full of SMART people before I’m 90, please!

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: The real issue...

Reminds me of:

“Democracy is the idea that a million men are smarter than one man.

“…Run that one by me again? I missed something.”

Which, in its original context, was followed immediately by:

“Dictatorship is the idea that one man is smarter than a million men.

“Take another look at that one, too. Who decides?”

Both quotes from Heinlein, who – while he didn’t get everything right, by any means – had many insights which are still applicable in the modern day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Here's what a rational site thinks of your Russia scare:

“So to summarize: having spent $100,000 on Facebook ads, and unleashed a troll army to wrote Facebook posts – which had a 0.004% change of being read – Putin then went for the kill, and assured himself a Trump presidency by splurging another $4,700 for Google ads and creating an additional 43 hours of video content. The rest is history.”

Frankly, I don’t believe that you believe it! You cannot. 0.004%? Not even after a whole bottle of Smirnov.

PopeyeLePoteaux (profile) says:

This narrative raises some interesting questions
1) If Russian ads have this much influence.. who doesn’t anyone else’s?
2) If Russians have this capability.. who else does?
3) What’s the Russians’s goal.. why would they be mustache twirling evil dicks when they could just license the technology to ad agencies and make TRILLIONS?
..oh, and 4) If Russian are these mysterious masters of mass manipulation.. why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why did they have to send troops to Ukraine, when a Tweet would have been enough?

If they could flip an election with a few hundred thousand dollars while DNC lost after spending more than a billion, why aren’t other countries learning the art of advertisements from them? We can can save billions every year and also cut down on the number of commercials everybody have to endure.

James William Steven Parker (user link) says:

Even Facebook and Twitter confirm the election was rigged

How we can take the American presidential election seriously, I really don’t know. It has now been confirmed by all the major social networking platforms that their social media platforms had massive and hugely irregular surges of activity from Russia. The election was indeed rigged.


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