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If Democracy Is Doomed, Don’t Blame the Russians

Fishy Facebook ads do not undermine the integrity of the electoral process.

A week before Hillary Clinton published her campaign memoir, Facebook seemed to validate her complaint that Vladimir Putin helped Donald Trump defeat her. But the social media platform's announcement about suspicious online political ads also highlighted common misconceptions about the nature of Russian attempts to influence the presidential election.

We often hear that Russia "hacked the election," "attacked our democracy," or "undermined the integrity of our electoral process." Yet so far all the anti-Clinton efforts blamed on Russia amount to attempts at persuasion, as opposed to interference in the casting and counting of votes. Our democracy probably can survive a few more voices in the cacophony of competing claims, especially if we cultivate habits of skepticism and critical thinking.

Facebook said it had identified about 3,000 political ads purchased by 470 or so "inauthentic accounts" that "likely operated out of Russia" between June 2015 and May 2017. The $100,000 spent on those ads was not even a drop in the bucket of Facebook's ad revenue, which totaled $27 billion last year.

Russian propaganda did not represent a significant share of political discussion on Facebook either. In a report published last April, Facebook estimated that "information operations," defined as "actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment," accounted for "less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content" during last year's presidential campaign.

Facebook has not released examples of the fishy ads, but it said "the vast majority…didn't specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate." Rather, "the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."

Fake accounts—opened by Russians pretending to be Americans, say—violate Facebook's terms of service. But foreign-sponsored online issue ads are permitted by U.S. campaign finance laws, provided they do not explicitly advocate a candidate's election or defeat.

Not that Russian operatives are necessarily careful to obey U.S. law. Last year's hacking of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, for instance, was clearly illegal (and rightly so).

Those hacks nevertheless generated newsworthy and arguably relevant information, as unauthorized leaks often do. Clinton was not happy about the resulting news coverage, but that was precisely because she believed it would interest voters. Although Democrats suffered, it is not at all clear that democracy did.

In the end, voters had to decide for themselves whether it mattered that officials at the supposedly neutral DNC plotted to undermine Bernie Sanders, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination. They had to assess the significance of excerpts from Clinton's secret Wall Street speeches and a CNN contributor's tips to her campaign about debate questions.

Facebook users likewise were free to accept or reject the "divisive social and political messages" sent by online ads, regardless of who sponsored them. A speaker's nationality or motivation is logically irrelevant to the merits of what he has to say.

That remains true when what he has to say is verifiably false. In a presidential race where both major-party candidates had trouble with the truth, the fact that their supporters also trafficked in lies did not create a novel challenge for voters, even when those supporters were not Americans or were employed by a foreign government.

Facebook describes the ads placed by "inauthentic accounts" as "Russian interference in the electoral process." It promises to remain alert to such shenanigans because "we believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse."

The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources.

If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy is doomed. But if so, it's not the Russians' fault.

© Copyright 2017 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • SamHell||

    "Not that Russian operatives are necessarily careful to obey U.S. law. Last year's hacking of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, for instance, was clearly illegal (and rightly so)."

    Does this mean that we now have actual proof that it was the Russians instead of mere conjecture?

  • damikesc||

    Has Reason ever needed evidence of their convictions?

    Sure, all of the info presented mentions how incredibly easy it is to disguise the source of attacks --- but those Russian hacker gangz (who, of course, "do it for the lolz") were so sloppy that our media figured it out it HAD to be them and not, say, 4chan dipshits using not terribly-difficult-to-obtain software produced by Russia (or, hell, us since OUR hacking tools also seem to get out quite nicely).

    And I still differentiate hacking with "moron using terrible passwords and sending them people he doesn't know"

  • SamHell||

    I suppose all those russains dominating the crafting MMO's are probably operatives too, dammit Putin is everywhere!!

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    "It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources."

    Yep, it does, indeed, Depends all over that.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It seems like the true issue is that the media takes issue with other sources of discourse and information gathering. Saying online sources are filled with Russian spies is done to attempt to reassure that they are the only valid source of news.

  • damikesc||

    I also love that they STILL ignore that the person with the most pronounced ties to Russia involved with the election was HILLARY'S campaign manager.

  • damikesc||

    Facebook has not released examples of the fishy ads, but it said "the vast majority…didn't specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate." Rather, "the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."

    So, Russian influence and higher education seem interchangeable. Grand.

    Also, reading the leaked portions of her memoirs, holy shit did we dodge a bullet in not electing Hillary.

  • Eek Barba Durkle||

    Last year's hacking of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, for instance, was clearly illegal (and rightly so).

    There is literally - LITERALLY - not one single ounce of a shred of evidence indicating that Russia had anything whatsoever to do with 'hacking' those emails. It is now a fairly-well established fact that the ENTIRE support for the Russia story is a.) the word of a known liar and avowed anti-ethnic-Russian racist in James Clapper, who overthrew the government of Ukraine b.) the conclusions of a Ukraine-aligned cybersecurity firm being paid by the DNC, who has been caught on multiple occasions misattributing cyberattacks to Russia and c.) a newspaper owned by a billionaire with millions and millions of dollars tied up in Clapper's CIA.

  • Eek Barba Durkle||

    Not only has not one ounce of evidence ever been produced to support this narrative, but the attempts at providing evidence so far have been insulting to anyone with any technical knowledge, and included claiming that RT's coverage of third parties amounted to evidence of email hacking. WikiLeaks, empirically the most credible journalistic entity in American history, has been adamant that they did not get the emails from Russia. VIPS, a group of high-level Intelligence Community tech experts and whistleblowers formed to expose the lies that led us into Iraq, have roundly criticized and rebutted many of the key assumptions undergirding the 'Russia hacked Podesta' narrative that, again, remains 100% in the land of shadowy theories without a single fucking ounce of support.

    If you're going to say anything bad about one major political party, be sure to always equivocate your feelings toward the other - but don't hesitate to present delusional conspiracy theories with zero evidence in support which exist wholly on the back of the word of known liars as established fact. Journalism 101.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Why would companies spend so much money on ads? I never buy anything that I am told to on Facebook and only use Facebook once every two weeks...maybe... to check on distant family and friends. In fact, I only watch movies and tv when there are no commercials and ignore any ads sprinkled throughout this glitchy website.

  • ||

    The Russians made Jacob write this article.

  • Palatki||

    They also made Eek Barba Durkle write the above disclaimer. Those Russians are cunning.

  • UnrepentantCurmudgeon||

    Facebook: ""we believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse." Gee. One could say the same about protecting the integrity of the ballot box with voter ID.

  • ||

    I make my living selling things online and everyone that is in sales knows Facebook is the worst place for conversions. I would imagine it is also an equally bad place to try to sell political messages on paid ads and side panels.

  • Curt||

    "Our democracy probably can survive a few more voices in the cacophony of competing claims, especially if we cultivate habits of skepticism and critical thinking"

    I think you missed the point... "we" already have skepticism and critical thinking. The problem is that "they" don't. My side (whatever the hell that is) diligently evaluates various competing claims and applies logic and reason to reach the best possible conclusions. My opponents' side (whatever that is) is very notorious for not giving a crap about logic and only believing what they are told by their party leaders. So, "we" have to protect "them" and their weak minds from opinions and facts that run counter to what "we" know so that they aren't improperly swayed.

  • macsnafu||

    Hypocritical Democrats like Hillary Clinton. If they were really concerned about democracy and democratic elections, then they should be doing more to level the electoral playing field for third parties and independent candidates. But that would seriously jeopardize their political power, so they're not going to do that.

    Trump and Sanders in the last presidential election seem to be proof that an increasing number of American voters are tired of the Duopoly and want *real change*.

  • Sevo||

    Yep, those darn Russkis let the cat out of the bag while the officials of all other countries stayed neutral during the campaign, right?

    "President Trump fills world leaders with fear: 'It's gone from funny to really scary' "
    [...]
    "Dangerous, foolish, irrational, scary, terrifying, irresponsible, a clown, a disaster. These are just some of the words used to describe the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency by politicians, diplomats and analysts around the world."
    https://www.theguardian.com /us-news/2016/apr/ 28/donald-trump-president-world -leaders-foreign-relations

    How could the hag overcome *that* sort of bias, I ask you?

  • Uncle Jay||

    RE: If Democracy Is Doomed, Don't Blame the Russians

    But...but...if we don't blame the Russians, who can we blame?

  • Longtobefree||

    That depends; do you cast a reflection in a mirror?

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