Diary

More Nuggets From Putin's Social Media Front

It’s hard to tell how much influence the trolls posing as BlackMattersUS have had, but it’s part of Putin’s larger social media strategy to sow social discord, undermine our democratic institutions, trash Hillary and support Trump.

A website hosted by Russia’s “troll farm” in St. Petersburg attempted to push an African-American boycott of Christmas with articles and a line of typo-ridden merchandise last year.

BlackMattersUS, which independent Russian media outlet RBC identified as one of the most influential websites and troll accounts operated out of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency, pushed T-shirts imploring its users to “Say no! To ho-ho-ho,” alongside a picture of a candy cane.

As representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google this week are set to testify before Senate and House Committees on Russian interference in the 2016 election, BlackMattersUS’ tone-deaf efforts to launch a boycott while posing as African-Americans shows the lengths the troll farm would go to try—and sometimes fail—to sow racial discord in the U.S.

In DC today, the people at Twitter will appear before Congress and testify that Putin’s infiltration into this platform was greater than initially believed.

Twitter will tell Congress this week that Russia-linked accounts “generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions” last year from September 1 to November 15.

“For our analysis, we studied the time period of September 1 – November 15, 2016 covering 16 billion unique Tweets, (i.e., excluding retweets),” a source familiar with Twitter’s testimony said. “Our review was deliberately broad, capturing 189 million election-related Tweets.”

In a portion of the prepared testimony, which Business Insider obtained Monday, Twitter’s acting general counsel, Sean Edgett, wrote that the company “identified 36,746 accounts that generated automated, election-related content and had at least one of the characteristics we used to associate an account with Russia.”

That is far higher than the number of Russia-linked accounts Twitter initially disclosed to the Senate Intelligence Committee in a closed-door interview last month. Twitter representatives reportedly told investigators that it had uncovered only 201 Russia-linked accounts, leading Democratic Sen. Mark Warner to tell reporters that the interview was “deeply inadequate.”

1.4 million tweets and 288 million impressions from 36,746 accounts is a large number, but not so much on a relative scale as this represents 0.012% of all Twitter accounts, but Twitter people will say that because they have corporate asses to cover and we are dealing with a threat to our national security. It should be noted that Twitter’s internal investigation only covered the period from September 1, 2016 through November 15, 2016.

At Facebook, the infiltration was also significant.

An estimated 126 million Americans, roughly one-third of the nation’s population, received Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 campaign, according to prepared testimony the company submitted Monday to the Senate Judiciary Committee and obtained by NBC News.

Underscoring how widely content on the social media platform can spread, Facebook says in the testimony that while some 29 million Americans directly received material from 80,000 posts by 120 fake Russian-backed pages in their own news feeds, those posts were “shared, liked and followed by people on Facebook, and, as a result, three times more people may have been exposed to a story that originated from the Russian operation.”

These numbers don’t include the 3,000 political ads paid by Putin-backed entities. Facebook will also say that the absolute numbers are large but represents 0.004% of all newsfeeds. In a election where the margin is decisive, the tweets and newsfeeds would have no effect, but in a close election where a few hundred or thousand votes determine the outcome? That’s the problem, especially when a tsar is born.

Like a tsar, Mr Putin surmounts a pyramid of patronage. Since he moved against the oligarchs in 2001, taking control first of the media and then of the oil and gas giants, all access to power and money has been through him. These days the boyars serve at his pleasure, just as those beneath them serve at their pleasure and so on all the way down. He wraps his power in legal procedure, but everyone knows that the prosecutors and courts answer to him. He enjoys an approval rating of over 80% partly because he has persuaded Russians that, as an aide says, “If there is no Putin, there is no Russia.”

Like a tsar, too, he has faced the question that has plagued Russia’s rulers since Peter the Great—and which acutely confronted Alexander III and Nicholas II in the run-up to the revolution. Should Russia modernise by following the Western path towards civil rights and representative government, or should it try to lock in stability by holding fast against them? Mr Putin’s answer has been to entrust the economy to liberal-minded technocrats and politics to former KGB officers. Inevitably, politics has dominated economics and Russia is paying the price. However well administered during sanctions and a rouble devaluation, the economy still depends too heavily on natural resources. It can manage annual GDP growth of only around 2%, a far cry from 2000-08, which achieved an oil-fired 5-10%. In the long run, this will cramp Russia’s ambitions.

And like a tsar, Mr Putin has buttressed his power through repression and military conflict. At home, in the name of stability, tradition and the Orthodox religion, he has suppressed political opposition and social liberals, including feminists, NGOs and gays. Abroad, his annexation of Crimea and the campaigns in Syria and Ukraine have been burnished for the evening news by a captive, triumphalist media. However justified, the West’s outrage at his actions underlined to Russians how Mr Putin was once again asserting their country’s strength after the humiliations of the 1990s.

I’ve said it before, but forewarned is forearmed. At Wired, Issie Lapowsky has a list of questions that Congress should be asking today, and they sound reasonable.