It’s no secret that Russia was heavily involved in trying to influence last year’s election. While we’ve known about the cyber attacks launched against the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign, it wasn’t until fairly recently that we learned Russia operatives had spent at least $100k buying ads on Facebook targeting certain people, demographics, groups, and locations.
The thing is, none of this surprised my editor or myself. In fact, last summer we had discussions about our belief that Russia was almost certainly buying Facebook ads and running various pages or groups meant to spread fake news and misinformation.
For a little background, Facebook makes it very easy to create ads targeting various groups of people by using keywords, demographics, and even specific locations. If you want to promote something to white males between the ages of 18-25 in a town in Indiana, that’s exactly what you can do, and Facebook’s system of “checks and balances” to ensure that these ads are ethical and should be approved is an absolute joke.
In July 2016, I wrote this article, based on several reports that had come out at the time, where I connected the dots to create a fairly clear picture of Russia trying to help Trump’s campaign.
When we had these discussions last year, we didn’t really discuss pro-Trump efforts by Russia, because we knew that was a forgone conclusion. Instead, we mostly focused on our belief that Russia was also targeting Bernie Sanders supporters in an attempt to divide the left against Hillary Clinton.
The problem was, we had no concrete evidence to back up what we knew was going on. Other than what we saw happening mixed with some critical thinking and common sense, which unfortunately doesn’t qualify as “proof.”
So when I saw the “breaking news” that Facebook discovered Russia had spent at least $100k on political ads, two thoughts went through my mind:
- I bet once the details of these ad-buys get made public, they’re going to find evidence where some of them were targeted at liberals, in particular Sanders supporters, trying to divide the left against Clinton.
In fact, when it was announced that these ads were going to be turned over to Congress, I posted this on my Facebook account:
Then came Wednesday’s report published by Politico containing a few details about these Russia ad-buys on Facebook:
Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein was the beneficiary of at least one of the Russian-bought political ads on Facebook that federal government officials suspect were intended to influence the 2016 election.
Other advertisements paid for by shadowy Russian buyers criticized Hillary Clinton and promoted Donald Trump. Some backed Bernie Sanders and his platform even after his presidential campaign had ended, according to a person with knowledge of the ads.
The pro-Stein ad came late in the political campaign and pushed her candidacy for president, this person said.
“Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein,” the ad reads. “Trust me. It’s not a wasted vote. … The only way to take our country back is to stop voting for the corporations and banks that own us. #GrowaSpineVoteJillStein.”
The ads show a complicated effort that didn’t necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton. Instead, they show a desire to create divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders and Stein. A number of the ads seemed to question Clinton’s authenticity and tout some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.
While all of that’s very interesting, the part that stuck out to me, in particular, was how these ads didn’t “necessarily hew to promoting Trump and bashing Clinton.” Instead, they focused on “divisions while sometimes praising Trump, Sanders, and Stein,” while others “questioned Clinton’s authenticity” and pushed “some of the liberal criticisms of her candidacy.”
That is exactly what my editor and I had talked about — over a year ago.
For me, however, signs of this manipulation go back much further than last summer.
The first article I ever wrote addressing the alarming nature of some supposed Sanders supporters was published on August 12, 2015. Just a few months into Bernie’s campaign I was already being called a “shill for Clinton,” accused daily of taking money from her campaign for daring to express my opinion that I liked her as a candidate more than the senator from Vermont.
Over the next few months, the issue became much worse.
Seeing the need to try to bring both sides together, I wrote an article urging Clinton and Sanders supporters to realize just how much was on the line during the 2016 election. I didn’t promote either candidate, I simply addressed supporters on both sides who claimed they weren’t going to support the Democratic nominee unless their particular candidate won.
In it, I said the following:
With everything that’s on the line this election, our number one goal needs to be keeping the White House this November. Then after we secure the presidency, hold either Clinton’s or Sanders’ feet to the fire to make sure they keep most of their campaign promises.
This election isn’t about ushering in new ideas as much as it is about protecting the progress we’ve already made and building upon it going forward. Often, “winning a war” is about knowing how to pick your battles. This election, the battle we need to fight is for the defense of the White House. This election is as much about pushing new ideas as it is about keeping Republicans from destroying our old ones.
Pride, arrogance and selfishness by too many handed George W. Bush the White House in 2000. Now, 16 years later, we’re facing a similar situation. And if we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Just a day later, on February 23, 2016, we published this article titled: I Asked Liberals to Unite to Protect the Rights of Millions, Here are Some of the Responses
At that time, the irrational hatred I saw from many on the left, fueled by some rather conservative-like conspiracies, was unlike anything I had seen from liberals before. That’s why I felt the need to write that original article.
For those of you who might not have time to read all of the comments in that article, here are a few I posted within it:
If Bernie doesn’t the nomination I’ll sit this one out (and many others) and let Trump take it. At least he addresses the bad trade deals like NAFTA that Hillary’s husband signed.
I will never ever ever vote for Clinton. Sorry. If a right wing hawk republican sellout is going to get elected, I want a right wing hawk republican sellout that is honest about who they are
The Clinton Machine and Democratic Party has the fix in. Dirty politics at its worse. If they get away with this, they deserve whatever we do to them.
Either we’ll have a moderate Republican in Hillary, or a fascist in Trump. But I don’t vote right wing so my ballot will be empty for president.
I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter, and I will only vote for Sanders. I will write him in. If the majority is foolish enough to nominate a scandalous, detached, pathological liar like HRC, then America doesn’t deserve Bernie. It deserves Trump.
Eh bite me. Stop telling people they have to vote for a rigged nominee from a corrupt organization produced by a broken system. Hillary is more of the same. I’ll vote congressional and local but they can have Trump. Let it burn. There’s where the revolution will start.
Why the hell should I be expected to vote for a candidate I despise? Hillary scares me just as much as Trump. And if you don’t like it, not my problem.
This article is the worst. Do you not see that we the people are f*cked if Bernie doesn’t win? I’d rather a distopian, mad max future with Trump than more lying liars in pantsuits, debt, & Christian sympathizers.
I’ll be voting for Dr. Jill Stein if Bernie Sanders doesn’t win the nomination. Hillary sucks.
Allen Clifton can lick my nuts. If it isn’t Bernie, I’m voting for Trump. Because f*ck it. Doesn’t matter.
As a Clinton supporter, I dealt with comments such as those (and sometimes worse) every single day.
Not to say that there weren’t some Clinton supporters who could be just as bad. In fact, I called them out, too. But what I saw from them was nothing compared to what I witnessed from this small, yet very vocal, group of Sanders folks. In just a few months they had quickly earned a reputation for being rather hostile and aggressive online. International news organization BBC published an article addressing the issue, highlighting how even Bernie supporters who had dared to say something positive about Clinton were quickly attacked online.
That’s actually the first time I’ve looked at those comments since the election and it’s incredibly sad how very Trump supporter-like these so-called “liberals” behaved.
But these sorts of comments first brought to my attention the possibility that there was something working “behind the scenes” trying to divide liberals. It wasn’t just that supposed Sanders supporters were speaking out against Clinton, it’s that they were parroting many of the exact same bullshit attacks being used against her by Republicans.
Out of nowhere I saw “liberals” bringing up Benghazi, obsessing about her private email server, and claiming she was going to be “indicted at any moment.” There were relentless attacks from hacks like H.A. Goodman. People who, in my opinion, seemed to be using Sanders’ new-found popularity to write articles claiming to be “pro-Bernie,” when they were mostly filled with anti-Clinton rhetoric similar to what you’d find on any conservative website.
In the case of someone like Goodman, cherry-picking old polling results, mixing them with newer ones, then pushing misinformation based on non-credible and outdated data. That was, of course, when he wasn’t laughably predicting that Clinton was going to finish third in Iowa or that rapper “Killer Mike” just handed the White House to Sanders.
I even found several pro-Bernie Facebook pages and websites that were posting anti-Clinton articles that seemed as if they were written by the likes of Fox News or Breitbart. Such as the day I stumbled upon quite a few of these pages pushing a trash poll commissioned by the ultra-conservative Washington Free Beacon simply because it was pro-Sanders.
Hell, look at Jill Stein’s rhetoric during last year’s campaign. She spent the vast majority of her time going after Clinton, even once saying she was more dangerous than Trump. And we can’t forget how she praised the bigotry-driven Brexit vote — then unethically tried to cover her tracks after she was called out on it.
You know who else cheered Brexit? None other than Russian President Vladimir Putin (who Stein met previously at the now infamous dinner that disgraced former national security advisor Michael Flynn also attended), and then-candidate Donald Trump.
Here’s a great article written by Matthew Smollon and published on Medium which we shared across our networks shortly after it was published last year. He exposed the litany of fake/spam websites/Facebook profiles (and tips on how to spot them) that were being created to churn out fake news. He also outlined how a good deal of it was anti-Clinton propaganda targeted at Sanders supporters pushing the idea that the primaries were rigged against him, and showed that much of it was coming from overseas. This garbage spread like wildfire through Facebook groups, sometimes even being picked up by large so-called “liberal” Facebook pages like US Uncut (which no longer exists).
Of course, the “primary rigged against him” conspiracy is still being pushed by many Sanders faithful today.
What Politico’s report tells us is that Russia’s ad-buys were focused on three things:
- Helping Trump.
- Attacking Clinton.
- Dividing the left by promoting Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein to weaken Clinton’s support.
Russia is smart enough to know that Trump was such an awful candidate that there was no way he could win by simply backing and promoting him. As evident by the fact that 54 percent of the country voted against him in some way or another, despite all the help he received.
Here are the vote totals from the 2016 election:
- For Trump: 62,853,825
- Against Trump: 72,716,751
That means Trump lost “to the field” by nearly 10 million votes — that’s embarrassing. Even with the help of a Russian cyber attack, WikiLeaks, over-the-top coverage of an “email scandal” for which the FBI had cleared her of any wrongdoing months before the election, and probably tens of thousands of bots amplifying propaganda against her throughout social media, Trump was still rejected by 54 percent of the country and lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes.
Just imagine how badly Trump would have lost had he not had all of that help.
Don’t forget, the emails dumped by Wikileaks, which they obtained via the Russian cyber attack weren’t released at random times. They scheduled their first big release just before the DNC’s presidential convention and abruptly began dumping John Podesta’s emails within hours of Trump’s Access Hollywood video becoming public.
I think it’s also important to point out that the WikiLeaks dumps had one purpose and one purpose alone: erode support from Hillary Clinton.
This is why I can’t help but laugh when I hear people say that Russia’s influence had no impact on the results of the 2016 election. That level of naivety is exactly how Russia did, in fact, heavily influence who won last year. It’s people who were either completely oblivious to what was going on or simply too stubborn to admit that they were manipulated by a foreign enemy.
Without a doubt, Russia had to have known that they couldn’t simply promote Trump if they wanted to defeat Clinton — they had to divide the left and turn liberals against her.
That’s exactly what my editor and I spoke about last year and this Politico report essentially confirms. There was a calculated and strategic effort by Russia to buy ads on Facebook targeting certain groups of people that not only promoted Trump in some way, but also sought to erode Clinton’s support by pushing Jill Stein and even Bernie Sanders long after his campaign had ended.
Then again, that fact shouldn’t surprise anyone. As someone who’s been on Facebook for close to a decade and started building my “Right Off a Cliff” page back around 2010, I’ve seen Facebook’s decline into a platform that cares much more about keeping you scrolling and clicking rather than giving a damn about the actual content it displays. I was talking about Facebook’s algorithm giving rise to fake news back in 2014. Large liberal and conservative media outlets have been able to successfully build their own “brands” on Facebook predominantly through jacking the work of others and slapping their label on it, then mixing in sensationalist “real news” with outright fake news to not only make a ton of money, but further drive divides and misinformation along the way.
Facebook enabled people to spam their page links whenever and wherever they wanted to quickly attract followers; they’ve enabled people to create fake pages which they could then use to comment on other pages for an extra layer of anonymity; they’ve enabled pages to be able to hide certain posts so that they only show up to people who actually follow the page; they’ve turned a blind eye to people buying millions of “likes” for pages, while others post fake video memes to rack up much more reach (and in turn more page likes) than they would from a regular meme; they’ve enabled people to be able to change their page names whenever they want (sometimes multiple times); and they’ve allowed people to post fake news and potentially dangerous links with seemingly little to no repercussions for the people, pages or groups that repeatedly do it. In this time they’ve continually claimed to be “fixing” their algorithms to show more “quality content” which just turns out to be a thinly veiled attempt to sneak in more ads and throttle reach to certain pages. Then they allow some of the same grifters who’ve been jacking content and driving divides for years to create even more blogs and buy even more ads to grow millions more “likes” on even more pages.
And we’re supposed to believe Russia hasn’t learned a thing or two over the years from Facebook’s cluelessness?
So when Senator Mark Warner says this revelation about a few hundred Russian accounts buying ads is just the “tip of the iceberg,” he’s right. Based on what I’ve seen and how oblivious Facebook has been at addressing problems over the years while they’ve been focused on increasing their profits, I’d be shocked if it’s not eventually revealed that Russia had tens of thousands of bots and sockpuppet Facebook accounts directly involved in influencing our election as “false amplifiers” and through other means. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them were paying for access to large political Facebook pages as well.
For anybody who still doesn’t think this is a problem, just ask former FBI agent Clint Watts, who helped develop a tool called Hamilton 68. It highlights how Russian bots have been camouflaging themselves among the far left and far right on social media, easily blending in and amplifying fake news and propaganda to drive anger, hate, confusion and division.
They’ve even been creating profiles on Twitter specifically tailored to look like Americans and swing-state voters. “So that way whenever you’re trying to socially engineer them and convince them that the information is true, it’s much more simple because you see somebody and they look exactly like you, even down to the pictures,” Watts told a Senate Intelligence Committee panel earlier this year.
The problem is so bad that the Pentagon just awarded a contract which could be worth over a million dollars to a technology company to study these bots and how they influence social media. This foreign effort to influence our election ran much deeper than anything we’ve previously experienced in our nation’s history; almost a year after the election, we’re still trying to understand exactly how multifaceted it was so that we can try to stop it from happening again.
I’m not here to say that Hillary Clinton was a flawless candidate or that her campaign didn’t make a lot of mistakes along the way. But as we continue to lean more and more about what, exactly, went on during last year’s election, it’s clear that she had more forces working against her than probably any presidential candidate in history.