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  • Ashley Baker

In the News This Week: Kavanaugh and Russian Interference

"Brett Kavanaugh is starting what could be decades on the bench with a sense of caution that has put him at odds with his fellow conservatives," wrote USA TODAY Supreme Court reporter Richard Wolf this week, explaining that:

"Although the matters [at issue] were largely procedural, the cases touched on some of the biggest issues the high court faces: abortion, immigration and the environment. In each case, Gorsuch sided with the court's conservative wing, while Kavanaugh … stuck by Chief Justice John Roberts. … The most prominent difference between the two Trump-appointed justices came last week, when the court let stand lower court rulings that allowed Planned Parenthood patients to contest laws in Louisiana and Kansas that stripped the group's Medicaid funds."

Is it too soon to draw conclusions?

"'There's a pattern here that you can't ignore,' said Curt Levey, president of the conservative Committee for Justice. 'It corresponds with our prediction for Kavanaugh, which is that he would be more like Roberts.' The sample size is too small for conclusions, but there are reasons to believe the differences may repeat themselves as the months and years pass."

Russian Interference

On Monday, a Washington Post headline screamed, "New report on Russian disinformation, prepared for the Senate, shows the operation’s scale and sweep." Although the Post notes that "lawmakers said the findings 'do not necessarily represent the views' of the [Senate Intelligence Committee] or its members," that detail was largely lost as the story spread throughout the news media

The report "found the [Russian] operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump," according to the Post. But if you look closely at the findings, the scale and sweep is quite modest.

Consider this finding: "the Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos for their disinformation campaign." Given that 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, that's less than a drop in a bucket.

Or these findings: "More than 99 percent of all [Russian-inspired] engagement … came from [just] 20 Facebook pages" and the "Russians operated 133 accounts on Instagram." Again, just drops.

Those findings are similar to those the Committee for Justice recounted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed this August: The Russians spent $46,000 on Facebook ads during the 2016 campaign, such that "For every 25,000 items the typical Facebook user saw in his news feed, only one came from the Russians."

Similarly, when incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai this month about "a massive disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 election,” Pichai responded that the “two main ad accounts linked to Russia” spent only $4700.

The bottom line of our op-ed: "Whether viewed in monetary terms (the official Clinton and Trump campaigns alone spent $81 million on Facebook ads) or reach … [the] influence on the American electorate could not have been more than a drop in the ocean."

Moreover, as we pointed out, Russian Facebook ads' "content is intentionally indistinguishable from the authentic ads and political expression we hear and see every day in our democracy, making their marginal impact something like adding a marble to a jar of marbles."

In fact, "it’s difficult to identify the problem once you get past the negative emotional reaction to 'Russian interference.' Consider that Facebook aspires to be a 'global community,' as do similar platforms, and foreign governments and their agencies routinely have a social media presence."

Perhaps that's why the ultimate conclusion of the report prepared for the Senate is only tangentially related to the Russians (in addition to being grossly exaggerated):

“Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”


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