Russia

Sinister Russian Manipulation of Facebook Lures Four People to a Rally

Xenophobia meets technophobia.

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If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension, The Daily Beast has a doozy for you:

The Daily Beast

The article beneath that headline informs us that "Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook's event management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S." It then illustrates this with the tale of a rally in Twin Falls, Idaho. If the facts these writers relate are true, there's an interesting story here. Unfortunately, what's interesting about it is almost entirely obscured by the way the report is told.

First there is the bizarre fixation on Facebook, a company whose role the writers repeatedly invoke. I know that anything that puts Facebook and Russia in the same vicinity is media catnip right now, but surely the story here is that Russia would want to organize such rallies, not that it used Facebook to do so. Imagine that the KGB had covertly planned a demonstration on U.S. soil in 1980. If its organizers had spoken with each other on the phone, would your coverage focus on AT&T? If they had used photocopied fliers to promote the rally, would your coverage focus on Xerox? I have many problems with Facebook as a company, but surely the fact that its tools make it easier to organize events is a good thing, even if some of the people who use those tools are unsavory.

The other big problem with the piece is how it frames the operation:

Wikimedia Commons

The Facebook events—one of which echoed Islamophobic conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media outlets—are the first indication that the Kremlin's attempts to shape America's political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action.

"This is the next step," Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia's influence campaign, told The Daily Beast. "The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something."

Sounds spooky, huh? But if you're still reading six paragraphs later, that spooky feeling may dissolve:

Although 48 people clicked that they were "interested" in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session. It is also possible to claim attendance on Facebook at an event that didn't exist.

Twin Falls had already been the focus of sustained attention on anti-immigrant websites. So the people behind this rally weren't building from scratch here; they were plugging themselves into a preexisting paranoid narrative about foreign predators invading Idaho. And yet as best as we can tell, they were able to draw only four people to their protest. Maybe those wily Russians aren't so great at behavior modification after all.

We already had good reason to believe that Russia's propaganda campaigns consist largely of trying to amplify forces that already exist in our society. If this rally is typical, it suggests that such signal boosts haven't had much effect. Much as it may please some people to blame America's divisions on some alien force, they were born here in the U.S.A.

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21 responses to “Sinister Russian Manipulation of Facebook Lures Four People to a Rally

  1. If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension

    So close, Jesse. So close.

    1. Man, i hope that was some intentional shade-throwing.

  2. So goes Twin Falls, so goes America.

    Oh hey, I heard an interview with Hillary Clinton (I know… WHO?!!) this morning and it’s pretty clear she has no idea What Happened.

      1. What’s funny, is that bit essentially details the writing for Saturday Night Live over the last 20 years.

    1. Ramadan, Twin Falls, Idaho is her oldest memory
      She was only two
      It’s the first time she felt true

      Cafeteria, Harrison Elementary
      Praying east at noon
      I saw her without shoes

      7Up I touched her thumb and she knew it was me
      She sad I had blasphemed
      The teacher wouldn’t speak

      My mom’s good she got me out of Twin Falls, Idaho
      Before my head could roll
      You know how that goes

      That’s where she still was the summer she was circumcised
      In 2017
      How could this still be?

      Last I heard was she had twins to fight in the jihad
      The libs refuse to see
      Where’s a country for me?

  3. surely the story here is that Russia would want to organize such rallies

    Don’t call me surely.

    Imagine that the KGB had covertly planned a demonstration on U.S. soil in 1980.

    Is it OK if we imagine it in ’82 rather than ’80?

  4. “””””Russian operatives hiding behind false identities”””

    If they were hiding behind false identities how do they know they were Russian?

    If the writers know their identities then why don’t they tell us their real identities?

    1. They sourced the IP of the person who created the ad to Russia.

    2. Location tracking based on IP addresses, how does it work?

      1. Doesn’t the NSA have tech that can mimic IP addresses to make it look like stuff is coming from somewhere else instead of them?

        1. Ixnay on the SANay alktay!

        2. Either way, sourcing an IP to a hemisphere on the planet is pretty weak tea when using it as proof that the Kremlin is involved.

        3. You don’t have to be the NSA. I used to subscribe to a service where I could choose my IP from anywhere in the world. Using TOR anyone can hide their IP address. The Russians could be North Koreans trying to make the Russians look bad.

  5. If we shutdown Facebook just to be sure, at least some good will come of this.

  6. If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension
    How about socialist players manipulating useful idiots in the USA to further socialist agendas?

  7. If only four people responded on facebook saying they were going, I’d be surprised if the “rally” even happened at all.

  8. So the Russkies try to start one of those color revolutions, and what color do they pick? Brown. Typical. Everybody else gets orange and green and purple and red(D’OH!). I tell ya, we don’t get no respect.

  9. This article reads like the Trump Jr. excuse, “Sure I met with the Russians but they didn’t provide any relevant information.” Maybe the focus on Facebook should expand to other sites as well but nevertheless it was the organ not for organizing but for spreading false stories to targeted audiencesnot. This is not the same for blaming ATT for allowing people to organize by phone- rather it is akin to criticizing the radio station that broadcast War of the Worlds without issuing a disclaimer stating this wasn’t news but entertainment. It really doesn’t matter how many people showed up at a non-existant rally but how many believed that such information, justified them voting for or against a candidate based on spurious information. People believe Facebook and when the company abdicates its responsiblity to monitor its websites for propaganda it does us all a disservice.

    1. it was the organ not for organizing but for spreading false stories to targeted audiences

      The whole point of the Daily Beast story is to argue that “the Kremlin’s attempts to shape America’s political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action.”

      it is akin to criticizing the radio station that broadcast War of the Worlds without issuing a disclaimer stating this wasn’t news but entertainment.

      I’m not sure what station you mean, since War of the Worlds did air with a clearly stated announcement that it was a play. But that’s a good comparison anyway, because the great War of the Worlds panic is also mostly a myth.

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