Election 2016

Don't Feed the Russian Troll Hysteria

The "information warfare" described in Friday's indictment is not an existential threat to American democracy.

|

According to a federal indictment unveiled on Friday, Russians who pretended to be Americans while participating in online political discourse during the last few years committed a bunch of felonies. Whether they accomplished anything else of significance is by no means clear, notwithstanding all the scary talk about "information warfare" that supposedly undermined our democratic institutions and interfered with the electoral process.

The crimes described in the indictment, which names 13 Russians associated with the so-called Internet Research Agency (IRA) in Saint Petersburg, include fraud and identity theft as well as violations of immigration law, campaign finance rules, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act. But everyone knows the real crime was, as Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch put it in Senate testimony last fall, conspiring to "sow division and discord" and "undermine our election process" by committing "an assault on democracy" that "violates all of our values."

The New York Times, which last year breathlessly claimed that "Russia Harvested American Rage to Reshape U.S. Politics," reports that Donald Trump's "admirers and detractors" both agree with him that "the Russians intended to sow chaos" and "have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams." A Times editorial assures skeptics that "the Russian subversion effort" was "sophisticated" and "breathtaking" in scope.

That analysis is at odds with the paper's own reporting, which describes Russian trolls as "sloppy" and "amateurish" bumblers who sounded suspiciously like foreigners while posing as Americans, left a trail that made it easy to catch them, and produced crude propaganda that amounted to a drop in the raging river of online political speech. The only thing breathtaking about this influence campaign is the hyperventilation of the alarmists who talk as if we are just a few angry tweets from the abyss.

According to the indictment, the IRA 13 and their co-conspirators were so sophisticated that they had to learn the importance of targeting "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida" in the context of the presidential election from an activist "affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization." They thought a $150 million donation to Hillary Clinton's campaign from the conservative Bradley Foundation would be a plausible hoax, and they created a Facebook ad showing Satan arm wrestling Jesus while proclaiming, "If I win, Clinton wins." It generated 71 impressions and 14 clicks.

The indictment makes much of the rallies instigated by IRA operatives but never says how many people participated in them. In 2016, the Times reports, "a dozen people" attended an IRA-orchestrated "Stop the Islamization of Texas" rally in Houston, while a simultaneous counterprotest, also organized by the Russians, attracted "a far larger crowd." Two dozen?

The indictment says the IRA spent "thousands of U.S. dollars every month" on social media ads. That's roughly one-millionth of the ad revenue that Facebook alone receives each month.

According to Facebook, ads bought by the IRA, most of which weighed in on contentious social issues rather than endorsing or opposing candidates, represented "four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed." Twitter Acting General Counsel Sean Edgett testified in October that "the 1.4 million election-related Tweets that we identified through our retrospective review as generated by Russian-linked, automated accounts constituted less than three-quarters of a percent (0.74%) of the overall election-related Tweets on Twitter at the time."

Richard Salgado, Google's senior counsel on law enforcement and information security, testified that the company found 18 YouTube channels offering about 1,100 videos with political content that were "uploaded by individuals who we suspect are associated with this [Russian] effort." The videos, which totaled 43 hours on a platform where 400 hours of content are uploaded every minute and more than 1 billion hours are watched every day, "mostly had low view counts," with less than 3 percent attracting more than 5,000 views.

Salgado nevertheless deemed the Russian content "a serious challenge to the integrity of our democracy." If our democracy cannot survive another 43 hours of political videos on YouTube, it was already doomed.

© Copyright 2018 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

NEXT: Trump Endorses a Ban on Bump Stocks

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Yes but it’s much better than stoking terrorism in the middle east and using that as a pretext to nuke them. I feel we dodged a bullet and give a dog a bone. What’s a little cyberwar between friends? Also this shows there was no collusion. Trump is safe. (Whew.)

    Also yes I met a few of these bots on my online travels (e.g. The Atlantic). Mostly they bashed the NRA and the types who’d join it, though it may have been a reverse psychology thing. They were pretty repetitive and prickly and not very articulate and wrote in short sentences. I remember one once said, “Your fascist underwear is showing.” Which I thought was so delightfully bolshevik-y. What impressed me the most was that people really would try to engage them earnestly. I couldn’t understand why and after badgering them about it (‘Why are you talking to a bot?’) I realized it was probably mostly motivated by loneliness. Which tells you something about this whole debacle.

    And yes I ran across the CIA/FBI/NSA bots. They were pretty smart and if we do get into a war with Russia and lose – it’s not for lack of intelligence.

    1. I think that most of the “bots” were really people.

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do… http://www.onlinecareer10.com

      2. Nah, sometimes they just get really lucky in timing and what comment gets posted where. See “bud” right above me.

        1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

          This is what I do… http://www.onlinecareer10.com

    2. You made me laugh. The Atlantic somehow became a bot before we even had an internet, come to think of it. Anyway, to borrow someone else’s anaysis, they are best perceived as a “shrieking hive of retardation”.

    3. Let’s face it, it is indisputable FACT that KILLARY is Satan, and Donald is God. We Trump-worshiping libertarians aka conservative Republicans don’t need Vlad and the Russians to convince us of this. I mean, look at all of the people KILLARY, and Bill, have murdered, and the fact that KILLARY is STILL running that pedophile ring from that pizza joint. Need convincing? Just listen to the brilliant Alex Jones. He reports REAL NEWS, not this FAKE NEWS crap. Trump now, Trump in 2020, and Trump forever!

  2. Funny that CNN just did a piece on Trump supporters being suckered by Russian trolls. They focus on an anti-Hillary rally some Florida group did. At the end, CNN admits that it wasn’t just Trump supporters suckered in, there were also BLM types and anti-war types and anti-Trump types. No mention of Hillary supporters, although they do mention a Russian troll-instigated anti-Trump rally that was so big even CNN covered it. No analysis of whether this rally so big that even CNN covered it indicates that the “anti-Trump” folks are more easily duped than “Trump supporters” or that CNN is biased and will give coverage to people talking shit about Trump but not people talking shit about Hillary. Given the fact that people talking shit about Hillary are referred to as “Trump supporters” whereas people talking shit about Trump are not referred to as “Hillary supporters”, I’m going with the bias. Well, that and the fact that CNN’s bias against Trump and Republicans in general is blatantly obvious to anybody with more than two functioning brain cells.

    1. Michael Moore went to a Russian organized rally in the USA back in 2016 and the media is trying to keep that on the down low.

      1. Was there a free buffet?

        1. I saw him a couple of Wednesdays ago and he wasn’t a big as I thought he would be.

          Girth, height, or stature.

    2. But, when Obummy’s campaign staff turned off the Credit Card Verification system & proceeded to collect millions in ILLEGAL campaign funds in 2008, CNN never said a peep & the good ‘ol FEC gave him a slap on the wrist!!!

  3. Russian “information” is apparently enough to make an American intellectual’s head explode.

  4. I still do not understand how a bunch of meaningless web mumblings from a Russian idiot differ from a bunch of meaningless web mumblings from all the American idiots.
    OK, I can see indictments for identity theft, but if all they did was put stuff on the web, how is that interfering with the election?

    1. It’s one of the more confusing aspects of the hysteria. The proof we’ve been offered is mostly dumb memes and obvious copy/paste troll comments with bad grammar (not too different from Hihn.)
      Our country is plenty divided already and any trolling and fake news from the Russians is a drop in the bucket compared to what Americans put out there. It is really just another bs talking point used by the left to avoid debating issues. The media tries using it to discredit the validity of the election. Commenters on left wing news sites resort to saying “fuck off, Russian troll” to anyone making a comment to the right of Marx even if such comments are on point and articulate. Just another tool to push their agenda without debating or thinking.

      1. So it’s the equivalent of “fuck off, slaver” used quite frequently here when somebody can’t even…..

        1. Pretty much. Though I do enjoy “fuck off, slaver” in response to someone advocating communist/socialist principles. That’s pretty much where those ideas lead. Not that the pejorative is an argument.

      2. The proof we’ve been offered is mostly dumb memes and obvious copy/paste troll comments with bad grammar (not too different from Hihn.)

        My God, Hihn’s a Russian troll. Why did we never see it before?

        1. Because, CA: we have our own free range moron problem providing perfect camoflauge for about anything except common sense. You may recall seeing Leno do his “man on the street” segments years ago, where he asked the most basic civics questions most gradeschool kids should know the answers to. The avalanche of vapidity was unscripted: those were real, unedited… Californians. As they say: as California goes, so goes the rest of the country.

      3. “”The media tries using it to discredit the validity of the election””

        Which I find funny because the feds keep saying the results were not affected. But they don’t want to hear that.

    2. They are looking for excuses to explain Hillary’s loss.

      Since these Russians were in the USA, they have 1st Amendment protections to troll websites like Americans do.

      1. Yep. If every single person who use a false identity on social media and did political trolling was indicted, there would’t be a jury pool large enough to try them all.

        1. But they’re not being indicted for that. Visa fraud, identity theft, money laundering.

          If they’d announced at the border, “Our purpose for entering the country is to sow dissention and hatred.”, and just not stolen anybody’s identity or attempted to conceal who was paying for it, they’d have been free and clear.

          Might have been a little less effective, though, if that Jesus vs Satan meme had “I endorse this message, signed Putin” at the bottom.

    3. About right, L. Moreover, is there any difference between this behavior of certain Russian nationals and anything an average PAC does? Imagine… being accused of commerce and excercising political speech in the USA. Really? What does this make Mueller? He is looking more Russian here than the Russians he’s allegedly investigating.
      I thinking SCOTUS tosses the matter under the bus once the dog and pony show Mueller is running ends. His timing indictments under the media cloud of the Florida shooting smacks of running for cover [and likely on top of judge shopping/calendar timing].

    1. The Indians even have a Ripple industry? They certainly are an economic powerhouse, they do everything.

      1. You’d think a Russian troll trying to interfere in my choice of spirits would be selling vodka.

  5. Those Russians seemed so amateurish…they should have asked some American intelligence officials for tips on how to meddle in foreign elections.

    1. Amd since when has a single vote been swayed by some internet troll? If that worked, we would all be thrills of Hihn by now.

    2. Why would they? Obama pulled out all the stops in Israel, and Netanyahu got elected anyway. They would not ask him to screw up their operations for them knowing that. Guidance was simply unavailable at the time of their endeavors. Unless of course you count Brussels, which has taken up where the politburo left off. But we would never hear of such a thing anyway – our networks couldn’t be bothered to cover 10 seconds of footage when a very long section of elevated road collapsed in Singapore many years ago, and that had pictures and video footage. Nuances in cloistered halls of bureaucracy are out of their league at the moment. They couldn’t even follow their old motto of ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ that built CNN once upon a time when that disaster happened. Meddling usually takes media savvy… and if the media is DOA, you can muster all the savvy you want – nothing is going to happen. This last election was about as outside the box as any foreign government has ever seen.

  6. The best explanation I’ve found for the Russians’ motives is not that they wanted Clinton to lose, but that they wanted the American government to be as weak as possible, so tried to undermine the perceived legitimacy of the person whom they (and many others, myself included) thought would be the next President.

    Assuming that their motive haven’t changed in the course of two years, their obvious next step is to try to divide the government: to establish a majority in at least one house of Congress that’ll oppose the President at every turn, and whose every move will be opposed by the President.

    The obvious way to do this is by whipping up as much anti-Republican fury as possible, using the sinister techniques that were so effective in 2016.

    The question then becomes: Will the NYT, CNN, HuffPo, &c., &c., denounce said techniques as vehemently when they’re used to promote Democratic candidates? Will they show the same willingness to attribute a Democratic takeover of Congress to the machinations of Putin’s minions?

    1. Are those rhetorical questions?

  7. I’m trying to get my mind around this. Are they (prosecution) saying, that if I were a British national and I go on reddit and claim I’m from the US, proudly displaying a US flag next to my screenname, and I post pro (insert party/candidate) messages and memes that I’m interfering in an election?

    I mean, I get the bank/wire charges, and even paid advertising, since that might run afoul of other laws, but there’s only 3 charges on that. It look like everyone else is accused of being a 4chan troll making fake Facebook / Instagram / YouTube / Twitter / Reddit accounts and posting in favor of Trump, Bernie or something.

    Is the prosecution actually arguing that it is illegal to be an internet troll?

    1. I would think using a foreign person/information to spread false information via professional news outlets would be a bigger issue than the same type of info spread on social media.

    2. Worse: Mueller is doing foundational work to further criminalize both speech and commerce, in the now century long tradition of the progressives. i’m thinking he would have been right at home working for Lenin, and if he were a young man just starting his legal career, he’d be the kind of prosecutor putting your 8 year old daughter on trial for selling lemonade without a permit/license as she tries her hand at fundraising for some school event.

  8. B-b-but… THE WRONG PERSON WON THE ELECTION! /sarc

  9. No, do fuck with the Russians on this. There are way too many moroons who believe this shit and it needs to be shut down hard. Never underestimTe the lack of intelligence of the average human.

  10. Nose. As in, think past it. China and Iran are the emerging threats, yet we focus on impoverished Russia with a single, coal-fired aircraft carrier and a GDP smaller than Los Angeles County because Hillary needed a convenient excuse for losing. #dumbasashtrays

    1. Coal fired? Man.. I thought the hamsters spun a cage bearing.

  11. Perhaps Mr. Sullum could take a similar shot at explaining why the Trump operation uniformly insists on being the guiltiest-looking innocents who ever existed.

    1. They are very, very stupid.

      Oh, and they might still be guilty.

    2. I think the applicable phrase here is “seeing what you want to see”.

  12. Geez, stop, you’re giving the Irish Republican Army a bad name Russia!

    lolz

  13. Yeah, the claims that this indictment reveals an expensive, sophisticated, and unprecedented effort to interfere in the election doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. This agency apparently had a monthly budget of $1.25M in the month before the election, but even if that was the monthly budget for an entire year it only amounts to 0.6% of the $2.4B spent on the presidential election and a rounding error in the US’s intelligence budget. So it wasn’t expensive by any meaningful metric. Getting someone to dress up like Hillary Clinton in prison garb in front of a Cheesecake Factory isn’t sophisticated. And I’d be shocked if there was anything unprecedented about it beyond maybe the reliance on social media. Are we really to believe nothing like this happened during the Cold War? Or after?

    It *is* a matter of concern, but the concern should be relative to the actual magnitude of the interference, which seems fairly insignificant.

    Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the hysterical reactions, and the reactions to those reactions, will probably do more to sow discord and undermine trust in traditional institutions than the actual Russian actions.

  14. I was amused to learn that Russian ad buys were largely post-election. It seems that the ‘yes men’ Hillary surrounded herself with over the years led to the media getting it wrong [on account of broken feedback mechanisms], which led to the Russians getting it wrong too. Public sentiment after the polls close usually isn’t something to manage or steer… unless you are opposing the winner. That alone lends credence to a Russia/Hillary campaign collusion – the one thing Mueller is steadfastly refusing to investigate. It’s both scary to consider the degree of disinformation the public has to cope with these days [from government and media], and in the case of the last election it is amusing: Hillary’s campaign swallowed its own tail as her operatives adopted a few too many of the old soviet tactics. I can’t think of anything better to happen to an Alynski acolyte. Playing the ‘show me the man and I’ll show you the crime’ card is deserving of cosmic repudiation.

    1. So let’s have Sessions indict Hillary for treason. It’s about goddamn time!

  15. No, they never say that, since it is impossible to prove the bots affected the election outcome the feds are silent on the matter. The absence of evidence (in this case denial of effect) is not evidence of absence.

    Also, the material that they injected into the stream of ideas about the election was often carried forward by the initial recipients. I often receive mind boggling claims as the hundredth generation forwardee. “The seed, once planted, takes a long time to grow. (pause) Perhaps not so lont.” WC Fields

  16. Well said, Jacob. The hysteria over at the liberal echo chambers about this “invasion” has reached ridiculous proportions, which could have easily been mitigated by a little balanced reporting from the mainstream media. Namely, divulging that Russian efforts weren’t all aimed at hurting Hillary, and in fact the trolls began a lot of anti-Trump efforts immediately after the election. (Note that none other than Michael Moore was sucked into one of the big troll-inspired rallies in NYC, covered breathlessly by both CNN and MSNBC.) Also lost is the fact that it was the Obama State Department who allowed the two main trolls into the country in the first place. Bottom line: there was plenty of blame to go around (not to mention bi-partisan swallowing of propaganda).

  17. “If our democracy cannot survive another 43 hours of political videos on YouTube, it was already doomed.”

    Amen, me broother, amen.

  18. I thank the good Lord (no not Don; although he may very well be God) that I have such a welcoming forum like this where mostly like-minded libertarians aka conservative Republicans such as myself who love and worship our brilliant, sexy leader Donald can come to and have our voices be heard without being drowned out by the FAKE NEWS-loving, Trump-hating LIBTARDS. And I thank you, my fellow comrades, for letting me feel as though I’m part of a H-U-G-E-L-Y special political movement. Wow. I think I’m about to cry. TRUMP NOW, TRUMP IN 2020, AND TRUMP FOREVER!

  19. “The “information warfare” described in Friday’s indictment is not an existential threat to American democracy.”

    The “information warfare” described in Friday’s indictment is not an existential threat to ANYTHING.

    FTFY

    It isn’t even information warfare, much less a threat, and was about as efficacious as spitballs in a grade school lunchroom. And most of today’s press is probably dumber than most fifth graders so we hear about these metaphorical spitballs ad nauseam.

    1. But then, spitballs now are assault; and the spitballers are potential mass murderers, fit only to be locked up after confiscating all guns with in a five mile radius.

  20. There were trolls. Especially over in Breitbart. I used to call them out all the time, it was easy AF to spot them. There are still a few around there and at WaPo

  21. They need to plaster Russian websites with antiPutin rhetoric and I mean make what the Russians did here look like kindergarten. If they want cyberwarfare, let’s show them how it’s done.

  22. I notice that in all the hysteria about Russky trolls, they never provide the name of a single American that was influenced. Maybe they are still searching for one.

    On second thought, after watching about thirty seconds of a delusional and unhinged “ACT OF WAR BY THE RUSSIANS AND TRUMP IS A PUTIN STOOGE” rant by Rob Reiner, who is evidently adding to his vast personal fortune by covertly asking for government funding for his Russian-scam website, I guess there is at least one American that was influenced.

  23. Imagine the tax-funded histrionics that would be happening if Russia had interfered in the voting charade using the same mechanisms that the US routinely uses – car bombs, assassinations of candidates, funding armed uprisings… and so forth.

    Lumumba; Allende; Mossadegh; Qassim; al-Quwatli; Goulart; Arbenz… all the way through to funding and enabling Yatsenyuk on Russia’s doorstep.

    This is why people detest Yanks: the hypocrisy is fucking breathtaking.

    They don’t hate you because you’re free – they hate you because the US has spent its entire history moralising and circle-jerking about moral superiority, while being just as big a bunch of fuckbags as any of the Eurotrash imperialists.

    The US is the paedophile priest of the world political order: self-aggrandising, self-promoting, claiming the moral high-ground and a unique uplifting message of salvation … while raping children.

    (Note: I’m using shorthand here – like everyone does – by “the US” and “Yanks” I mean the US government… which, like all governments, is peopled by the very worst individuals in society. And governments that fall to their knees and blow the US anytime it asks – like Australia – are no less culpable for Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan)

  24. The idea that Russians spending ‘crumbs (Pelosi’s word, not mine)’ on pathetic trolling posts is anything more than a trivial annoyance is itself pathetic, and indicative of the unhinged irrationality of the Left. The US spends 100x as much meddling in the elections and internal affairs of foreign governments. The Chinese committed the single largest hack in American history on confidential government files. Where is the Left wing hue and cry for vengeance against these slanty-eyed, yellow devils? The meaningless piffle of Russian pests doesn’t most the dial a whisker compared to the outright corrupt and treasonous conduct of Clinton, Comey, McCabe, Powers, Rice and Obozo himself. Lock THEM up!

    1. ‘move the dial’

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.