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  • CFJ Staff

Putting Russia's Social Media Interference into Perspective

The following is the statement of Committee for Justice president Curt Levey:

Washington, D.C. – While the Mueller report, released today, concluded that there was no collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, it described a "social media campaign" dating back to 2014 that was run by Russia's Internet Research Agency (IRA) and was designed to interfere in American elections. "By the end of the 2016 U.S. election, the IRA had the ability to reach millions of U.S. persons through their social media accounts," the report concludes.

But as even Paul Joseph Watson noted today, "Mueller report makes a big deal out of Russian bot accounts reaching 'millions' of people. Sounds huge to people who don't know social media. I was doing 300 million impressions a month on Twitter at the height of the election, and I'm just one dude from the UK."

In fact, he's right. "Millions" gives the mistaken impression that the Russian operation had a substantial impact on the 2016 election. But while the operation is alarming, it was actually quite modest in its scale and sweep. Here's some much needed perspective:

As we recounted in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last 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." In comparison, "the official Clinton and Trump campaigns alone spent $81 million on Facebook ads."

When Google CEO Sundar Pichai was asked by House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler about "a massive disinformation campaign to influence the 2016 election,” Pichai responded that the “two main ad accounts linked to Russia” spent only $4,700.

Similarly, the Washington Post's report that "the Russians posted more than 1,000 YouTube videos for their disinformation campaign" sounds like a lot. But given that 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, that's less than a drop in a bucket.

Hence our conclusion that the Russian campaign's "influence on the American electorate could not have been more than a drop in the ocean."

Moreover, while there "is no doubt the Russian ads are intended to stir up controversy rather than bring Americans together, … the same can be said about many domestically produced political ads—not to mention a fair amount of journalism." Because the content of the ads "is intentionally indistinguishable from the authentic ads and political expression we hear and see every day in our democracy, … their marginal impact [is] something like adding a marble to a jar of marbles."

Speaking of journalism, the Mueller report tells us that "U.S. media outlets also quoted tweets from IRA-controlled accounts and attributed them to the reactions of real U.S. persons," reminding us that it's not so easy to detect fake Russian ads. So much for the complaints of journalists and politicians that social media platforms did not immediately detect the problem.


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Updated 8:00 AM, April 19, 2019.


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