Are Facebook Ads Part of the Russia-Trump Conspiracy Theory?
Participating in the marketplace of ideas is not interference.
The Trump-Russia conspiracy hunt is scraping the bottom of the barrel—Facebook ads.
The New York Times reports Facebook "identified more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot-button issues purchased by a shadowy Russian company linked to the Kremlin." More than 3,000 ads were identified, although most of them did not refer to specific candidates.
That company, the Internet Research Agency, was reported by The New York Times in 2015 to be a troll farm. Now the Times insists that Facebook's disclosure "adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian influence campaign" but admits that as of yet "there has been no evidence proving collusion in the hacking or other Russian activities."
Facebook's chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said the company had shared its findings with Robert Mueller, the former FBI director appointed special counsel on the Trump Russia investigation, and would continue to work with him "as necessary."
What is all that supposed to mean? In a country founded on the idea of free and open speech, how concerned should we be that foreign companies make ad buys on Facebook? The "marketplace of ideas" is robust enough to handle it. Ideas succeed and fail on their merits. Advertisements can get ideas in front of people, but they can't get those people to accept or act on those ideas.
To begin with, $100,000 in Facebook ads is not a lot of ads (the company had more than $9 billion in ad revenue in the last fiscal quarter alone). For the most part, Facebook ads are pretty ineffective.
Even if the Russian company had purchased 10 or even 100 times as many ads, it's no big deal. There is little evidence political ads sway voters. The idea that a relatively small ad buy on a relatively ineffective platform interfered with the presidential election is ludicrous.
Free speech works because any idea is absorbed and subjected to the pressures of a marketplace. More voices only make the marketplace richer and give free participants in that marketplace more information with which to make decisions.
The most unseemly part of the Trump-Russia conspiracy-mongering has been the contorting of free speech in a free country to appear shadowy, devious, sophisticated, and overly influential.
Back in January, when the intelligence community released an unclassified version of its report on Russian attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, the bulk of it focused on the operation of Russia Today (a network I've appeared on a few times) and its coverage of third-party candidates and of issues like police brutality, military drones, and mass surveillances. The spooks argued such coverage undermined American democracy. Precisely the opposite is true—increased coverage of third-party candidates and of issues often under-reported by the mainstream media can only improve decision making in a democracy.
The Trump-Russia witch hunt focuses disturbingly on political speech, and smacks of quashing it based on perceptions of the source. This "kill the messenger" premise offers the government the opportunity to suppress messages it doesn't like.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a top congressional Trump-Russia conspiracy theorist, has already suggested Facebook should do more to monitor where its ads are coming from and shut down foreign ones.
"Clearly Facebook doesn't want to become the arbiter of what's true and what's not true," Schiff told the Times. "But they do have a civil responsibility to do the best they can to inform their users of when they're being manipulated by a foreign actor."
The true manipulation comes from those who think the age-old American tradition of free speech and free press is sinister and ought to be abridged.