Russia's Election Interference Is Digital Marketing 101

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Publication Date: 
February 19, 2018

Last Friday, the Justice Department charged 13 Russians with attempting to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The case presented by Special Counsel Robert Mueller laid out an elaborate scheme of information operations, carried out primarily via the social media websites Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Through the Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll factory” in St. Petersburg, the Russians created hundreds of fake accounts on these services, which then disseminated fake news and other misleading content about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to hundreds of thousands of users. They focused their campaign on topics that divide America—race, immigration, and religion—and targeted battleground states. According to figures reported by Facebook and Twitter, the Russian campaign reached more than 125 million Americans on Facebook; over 675,000 people engaged with Russian trolls on Twitter. The Russians’ effort is, of course, ongoing.

Thus far, the media coverage of Mueller’s indictment has fixated on how all this could have happened, and probed whether the Trump campaign was involved. The answers to these questions will all emerge in time. The more troubling question is why it was so easy to make fools out of so many Americans.

Consider two things. First: While the Russians created fake accounts to pose as Americans on social media and buy ads, the technologies they deployed are all commonplace in the digital-marketing industry—this was no 007-style spycraft. Second: These days, Americans live in divisive, partisan information environments, chock-full of incendiary rhetoric. They have very low standards about the sources they accept as accurate, and yet aren’t great at parsing fact from fiction on the Internet. Even “digital natives”— young people most at home in an online information environment—have proven inept at judging credibility. In other words, when the Russians set out to poison American politics, they were pushing on an open door.

How does a ready-made toolbox for digital manipulation already exist? For that, we have the digital-advertising industry to thank.

In a recent study on the digital-advertising industry that we published with New America and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, we analyzed how the tools of digital marketing can be readily repurposed by agents of disinformation. The basic idea is for advertisers to micro-target digital advertising at very specific demographic slices of social-media users to see how they respond. A disinformation operator could test hundreds of different messages, often aimed at thousands of different permutations of demographic groups on the advertising platforms of the most widely used social-media companies.

Read the full piece at The Atlantic