Don't Blame Tech Companies for Russian Election Trolls

If our elected representatives need someone to blame, they might try looking a little closer to home.

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Russian Hacker
Dmitrii Melnikov/Dreamstime.com

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) blames Silicon Valley for not detecting a dark "underbelly" of Russian propaganda online. Facebook and Twitter are "a day late and a dollar short," he recently told Variety. Their executives, he added, selfishly want the controversy over fake news and targeted ads "to go away because it affects their business model."

Also eager to blame tech companies are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who have been lobbing interrogatories at the two firms while accusing them of failing to stomp out Russian influence.

"I must say, I don't think you get it," Feinstein informed representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter at a hearing last November. "You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will."

But when the feds tried to "do something about it," the results were far from impressive. News reports nearly five years ago revealed that outfits linked to the Kremlin were inserting themselves into American public affairs, and the Washington establishment did little about it.

Russian skullduggery became public in 2013 when Novaya Gazeta revealed that "specially equipped offices" in St. Petersburg and Moscow were operated by Internet trolls employed to "scold" America. A year later, Buzzfeed warned that the Russian government had launched "a million-dollar army of trolls to mold American public opinion" and "encourage dissent."

A June 2015 cover story in The New York Times Magazine offered more details. It said the Russian government had hired an outfit called the Internet Research Agency, whose propagandists gamely struggled past their broken English to denounce President Barack Obama on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the comment sections of CNN, Politico, and Fox News. The disinformation campaign included fake patriot groups like Spread Your Wings, "a community for everyone whose heart is with America."

In the bowels of Washington officialdom, despite billion-dollar intelligence budgets and a peerless global surveillance apparatus, very little appears to have been done. No Russian nationals associated with the disinformation campaign were deported from the United States. (Three were improvidently granted U.S. visas.) No official warnings appear to have been sent to social networks or payment processors. And no indictments were made until a few weeks ago.

Facebook notified the FBI about Russian activity in June 2016, but no U.S. law enforcement or intelligence officials visited the social media company to compare notes. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the State Department pulled the plug on a project to combat Russian disinformation. The New Yorker concluded that the FBI, despite its $9 billion budget and 35,000 employees, simply "is not up to the job of detecting and countering Russian disinformation." The Washington Post summarized the bureaucratic failures: "Top U.S. policymakers didn't appreciate the dangers, then scrambled to draw up options to fight back. In the end, big plans died of internal disagreement."

So it's a surprise to see senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are charged with providing "vigilant legislative oversight" of the nation's spy and counter-espionage agencies, pointing fingers approximately 2,800 miles westward instead.

Twitter responded to Feinstein by saying it has "established a dedicated Information Quality team" to prevent fake content from "contaminating our platform." Facebook's solution was to disclose more: It will reveal every ad a page is running, and will attempt to verify political advertisers' identities. (Perhaps embattled executives in Menlo Park wish they had followed T.J. Rodgers' famous advice not to normalize relations with Washington, D.C.)

These are reasonable steps, but they cannot stop a sufficiently determined national government. If Moscow can create cover identities for actual spies living in the United States, it can surely devise an identity for an would-be advertiser or simply impersonate an American citizen online. Identity fraud is no obstacle for a government willing to violate U.S. criminal laws. Silicon Valley companies shouldn't be expected to conduct counterespionage operations of their own.

Meanwhile, it's worth questioning whether Russian propaganda substantially influenced voters in the first place. The Facebook ads were risible and written in a language enjoying only a tenuous relationship with English. Engagement was poor. Kremlin-linked ad spending represented less than 1 percent of the $1.4 billion spent on online ads in the last election. Even the Justice Department acknowledges there is no evidence that Russians "altered the outcome of the 2016 election."

This is not to excuse Silicon Valley companies that turn a blind eye to unlawful activity. (It is, in general, illegal for representatives of foreign governments to engage in U.S. political activities.) Their executives have an ethical obligation to address a disinformation campaign by a foreign government, and they seem to be doing just that. If our elected representatives on the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees need someone to blame, they might try looking a little closer to home.

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  1. “I must say, I don’t think you get it,” Feinstein informed representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter at a hearing last November. “You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.”

    This type of threat against business is like something straight out of Atlas Shrugged.

    You have a whole incompetent cabal of top men with their goons, Mrs. Feinstein. Yet their blundering incompetence still allows for “bad things” to happen in the world. Why do you think that is true? What do you expect Facebook to do better?

    1. Too bad the leaders in Silicon Valley don’t have the guts that Hank Rearden.

    2. “And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.”

      “Here’s a copy of the Constitution; you might want to read it some time. We’re done here.”

      /exits

      1. More like, “Here’s a fat donation check for your next campaign, and we’ll be sure to step up our non-woke censoring efforts.”

  2. “It is, in general, illegal for representatives of foreign governments to engage in U.S. political activities.”

    Is it illegal for representative of the US government to engage in foreign political activities?

    1. I assure you, that doesn’t even slow them down.

      1. I can assure you the question is never even asked. Sort of like whether or not any activity is Constitutional or not.

    2. Laws apply to everyone else, not them.

    3. “”It is, in general, illegal for representatives of foreign governments to engage in U.S. political activities.””

      If that were remotely true, every EU head of state should be in the dock for pimping the hag.

    4. “It is, in general, illegal for representatives of foreign governments to engage in U.S. political activities.”

      Unless the foreign government is Israel’s. Or is that still considered a foreign government?

  3. What the actual fuck. How are we even legislating this? In a free society, people are allowed to exchange and believe false information. Voters get to decide what criteria – right or wrong – to use at the ballot. And thankfully so for the politicians who regularly troll their own constituents.

    Evict the foreigners if you want, but leave the owners of the printing presses out of it.

    1. Between this and the SJWs, our politicians are just itching to find an inroad to destroying the First Amendment

      1. Don’t forget the progressive quest to overturn Citizens United!

      2. destroying 1A is the goal, let a problem fester until the citizenry cry for action

    2. Feinstein, Warner, Schiff, are literally saying that Americans are too dumb to not fall for cheap attempts at trolling?

      1. Not surprising that they think so little of their constituents. After all, they’re dumb enough to keep re-electing them.

      2. That’s the part that baffles me – how could the amateurish bullshit that the troll farms put out possibly compete against the amateurish bullshit that comes directly from the mouths of the candidates?

        I don’t need a Macedonian guy to make a Jesus meme to convince me that Hillary is bad, thank you very much.

    3. Something tells me Feinstein, Warner et al would be dead silent if Boris and Natasha’s propaganda had been liberal and pro-Clinton, and if Clinton had won the election. But then the GOP side of the joint would be squawking and calling for the “liberal social media” to be censored or taken over by the government entirely, so I guess there’d still be no peace.

      1. Seems to me the federal government reacted appropriately in the past, ignored this shit because it is completely irrelevant. But that was before Trump so it suddenly became a crisis. The Republicans may very well have been squawking if Hilary had ascended to her rightful place but you can bet your ass it would not be a featured story every day in the NYT, WAPO, CNN, MSNBC, and the three major networks. Might get page 6. Below the fold.

  4. How much tyranny do we need so that democracy works out ok for everyone?

    Alright: no more normal people are allowed to talk to one another within 30 days of voting. Only progressional news anchors on approved channels.

    Ooops: you’re being charged with Voting Under the Influence, and for that, you’re being exhiled to Russia.

    I mean, I get it: that’s silly. Voting is our most sacred right. We have to let anyone and everyone vote. So, I guess we’ll just have to ban thought sharing. Sorry! We’re doing democracy here!

    1. We have to let anyone and everyone vote.

      Especially 16-year-old immigrants.

  5. “The Facebook ads were risible and written in a language enjoying only a tenuous relationship with English.”

    How, exactly, does this distinguish Putin’s minions from about 80% of the graduates of American high schools?

    1. The definition of what qualifies as the English language is being gradually redefined to align with the latter group; not the former.

  6. “Also eager to blame tech companies are Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who have been lobbinginterrogatories at the two firms while accusing them of failing to stomp out Russian influence, writes Declan McCullagh.”

    So stomping out foreign influence is now the purview of the private sector?

    1. So stomping out foreign influence is now the purview of the private sector?

      Your belief in this depends on your party affiliation.

  7. Even the Justice Department acknowledges there is no evidence that Russians “altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”

    Polling indicates at least 75% of Democrats believe “it is likely” Russia altered the outcome of the election.

    1. If it’s so easy to influence U.S. elections, next time I might try, too.

    2. #FakeNews

      I guess it works both ways?

  8. “You have a huge problem on your hands. You have created these platforms and now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it, or we will.” Said the authoritarian…

    “Their executives have an ethical obligation to address a disinformation campaign by a foreign government, and they seem to be doing just that.”

    Why do they have an ethical obligation to do that? You are really showing how little you think of American people.

  9. They still can’t admit that Hillary lost because no one voted for her. Have to blame Russia instead.

  10. At least we know that had Clinton won, the furor over Russian, um, interference would be the same. Definitely – without a doubt, and that’s how you know that current hysteria is justified.

  11. If you’re stupid enough to be influenced by the crap on social media, you’re obviously too stupid to be allowed to vote.

  12. So it’s a surprise to see senior members of the House and Senate intelligence committees, which are charged with providing “vigilant legislative oversight” of the nation’s spy and counter-espionage agencies, pointing fingers approximately 2,800 miles westward instead.

    Why is that surprising? Blaming someone else for their own fuck ups sounds like standard operating procedure for Congress.

  13. The Russian government spends a million dollars a month (that we know of) to influence Americans. A con man gets voted in as President of the US. But there is no causal connection. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

    Looking at the rolls from an on the ground, in the trees perspective it looks like the Russian trolls had no influence. There are plenty of homegrown trolls in America. But look it the forest and things look differently. A million dollars a month. A directed effort by the Russian government. Of course something was influenced. Sure, we can’t point to any one vector and say THAT caused the election. Cause and effect does not work that way.

    If we found out that a politician bought 1000 votes but won an election by 1001 votes would we say the vote buying did not cause them to win and hence, we should poo poo their corruption? That would be silly. Trolls that target America to foment chaos definitely contributed to the conditions that made it possible for Trump to win. The fuel for our political fire was already in place. The Russians may have simply fanned the flames so-to-speak. But it may have been a potent contribution. And if they din’t directly impact Trump they certainly impacted the political climate of the US in negative ways. It just isn’t good.

    1. Your position is literally idiotic.

    2. The Russians spend a million dollars a month (that we know of) to influence Americans.
      Soros is Hungarian, not Russian, and it’s a lot more than a million a month.

    3. And the Democrats spent about one billion on Clinton’s campaign, yet a million dollars a month foiled their efforts?

      That is seriously your assertion?

      1. If they’re that efficient, I think Russia would literally be running the entire world right now. You could probably fix Canada’s elections for like…200K a month.

        Or, this is the dumbest excuse ever for a losing campaign.

    4. The parties spent billions on the 2016 election. Team Trump bought $90 million in online ads alone. Russian-backed FB ads cost a little over $100K. It’s a drop in the bucket.

      The U.S. doesn’t just influence foreign elections; it literally installs simpatico leaders in other countries. And then, when the honeymoon’s over, it takes them out. Maybe we should stop meddling in the elections of other countries, and then we’ll sound a lot less hypocritical when we want foreign powers to stop trying to influence ours.

      Clinton outraised and outspent Trump. She had her own army of thousands of trolls to “Correct the Record.” But her trolls were such smug dumbshits that they spent most of their time lighting into the left flank of their own damned party instead of trying to convince Rust Belt Trump voters why she’d be the better choice. The Russian trolls, however, were smart: they promoted the 1950s-era ideals that Trump’s base held dear; they railed at the meaningless culture-war ornaments that riled the rabble, like football players gasp not standing for the anthem! They shit-stirred with the left, which is what they were hired to do.

      Maybe we’re just so mad at these Russians because they’re actually good at what they do. Maybe we should be madder at ourselves for being so gullible and poorly-informed? Just a thought. Maybe someday, Camp Clinton can accept some of the blame for losing the election.

  14. Don’t you all see the utility of this Russia narrative? Clearly, some of you see some of it.
    1. Excuse to have private companies, already intimately tied to the federal gov (looking at your 450 visits to the White House Google), censor wrongthink. This way, the fed doesn’t run up against that pesky 1st amendment.
    2. Discredit and obstruct current admin.
    3. Distract from the outright propaganda of corporate media, and blame divisiveness on someone else. BTW, anyone else notice how Antifa stopped being so active/visible right after it became apparent that public opinion was turning on the Ds?
    4. Make Russia the big bad guy. Get the folks fired up for war! This is no joke.

  15. Unless 9/11 really was an inside job, this is the biggest psyop ever run against the American people. Yes – against.
    Remember this all starts with the DNC Wikileaks. Automatically attributed to Russia, despite:
    1. only CrowdStrike, a DNC contractor owned by a Ukrainian oligarch, accessed the server.
    2. Seth Rich murder – “botched robbery” yet jewelry, phone, wallet, cash not taken. Two shots to the back. Missing body cams from responding DC police.
    3. Assange implied, and Kimdotcom asserted, that Rich was the leaker (not hacker) responsible for DNC emails. Mueller has ignored Kimdotcom’s offer to testify and hasn’t spoken to Aaron Rich, who claims to be in possession of Seth’s computer. Neither has he interviewed a single person from the Obama administration.

    John Brennan, former Communist party member, thought this up. They then used “the dossier” – a document none of our anonymous source reliant media even found credible enough to publish – to secure a surveillance warrant on Carter Page. That warrant allowed them to search back records/communications as well as current and future. The fact that he wasn’t with the campaign at the time of obtaining the warrant is immaterial. They obviously started freaking out about a month before the election, and all their efforts have been directed at a cover up and coup, plus continued demonization of Russia.

    This is a big deal.

  16. I wonder if the ultimate goal isn’t some kind of common sense speech control. Maybe Fox news shouldn’t be allowed to cover the election, because they have foreign owners. Also isn’t Rupert Murdoch Australian, interfering with US elections for years.

  17. Pro tip to those following this story: there ARE no Russian “election trolls”. there are russian trolls, but they weren’t “election trolls”.

  18. Facebook is more concerned with challenging conservative venues such as “Prager U”, and Dennis Prager has taken them to court over First Amendment issues. You know, that whole Free Speech thing.

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