Minnesota Senator and presidential hopeful Amy Klobuchar recently took to Twitter to warn about a problem that has riddled the 2016 election and is likely to affect the next general election as well: “The evidence is clear: Russia planned a deliberate attack on our democracy … We must act now to secure our elections, protect our national security and hold Russia accountable.” Attached to her tweet was an article by NBC’s Ken Dilanian which summed up the latest findings regarding the activities of the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.
Research done by cybersecurity firm Symantec – based on a large data set that was released by Twitter in October last year – indicates that the influence campaign conducted on Twitter by what has become known as “Putin’s troll factory” was larger, more sophisticated and had far more reach than was previously known. These findings complement what has already been revealed by the Mueller probe and the efforts of investigative journalists about the activities of fake Russian accounts on Facebook as well as Instagram. What emerges is the picture of a massive disinformation and manipulation effort that went on across all social media platforms, big and small.
In the lead up to the 2016 election, the paid trolls of the Internet Research Agency were instructed to create and operate social media accounts and group pages designed to attract specific U.S. audiences while posing as American citizens, activists and sometimes local news outlets. They addressed divisive political and social issues to create engagement and were in many cases so successful that they were able to communicate with genuine American users, celebrities or members of the Trump campaign. In a number of instances, the Russian trolls were convincing enough to have their posts quoted by major U.S. news outlets or to mobilize hundreds of people for real-life pro-Trump rallies.
There is still a general lack of awareness and often a considerable degree of disbelief in the threat online interference efforts may pose to the integrity of elections. Much of this is due to the fact that the strategy of micro-targeting makes a lot of the ongoing activity invisible to the average person. If you are not a member of the target audience, chances are that you are never going to see the posts or the tailor-made ads aimed at users that have been identified as politically undecided potential voters in contested areas. This may lead people to lend credence to a comment made by Jared Kushner in early May in which he dismissed Russian online activity in the context of the 2016 election as “just a few Facebook ads”. This comment, of course, is deceiving. Kushner was deeply involved in his father-in-law’s digital election campaign and he is very well aware of the power of social media.
The revelations about the broad scope of Russian disinformation and attempted voter manipulation that keep coming to light are a stark reminder that the U.S. government has precious little time to safeguard the 2020 presidential election from foreign interference. This is going to be a litmus test for every lawmaker and candidate who wants to be able to credibly claim that they are committed to preserving American democracy.