Last night, The Washington Post revealed that Russian trolls “got tens of thousands of Americans to RSVP” to local political events on Facebook. We’ve known since last September that Russian trolls employed this tactic and often created dueling events at the same location and time, probably to incite violence or increase tension within local communities. But it is only now we’re learning the scale of that engagement. Per the Post, “Russian operatives used Facebook to publicize 129 phony event announcements during the 2016 presidential campaign, drawing the attention of nearly 340,000 users -- many of whom said they were planning to attend.”
The new information comes via the Senate intelligence committee, which has been investigating potential Russian collusion in the 2016 U.S. elections and pressuring tech companies, especially Facebook, Twitter, and Google, to disclose more of what they know about just how much propaganda Americans saw on their platforms. Both Twitter and Facebook have agreed to let users know if they were exposed, but given that we’re still learning more about the scale of the operation, I’m skeptical that anyone knows how many Americans were exposed to Russian propaganda or how often. (If you’d like to check for yourself, I helped create a site that allows anyone to check the likelihood of them being exposed on Facebook.)
By now most Americans accept that Russian propaganda appeared on their social media feeds in 2016. What concerns me is whether or not they believe that they themselves were susceptible to it. The fact that nearly 340,000 people RSVP’d to events created by Russian trolls -- that they moved up the ladder of engagement from consuming content to RSVPing to an event -- should make us all reconsider our own vulnerability, especially when you consider that many of these events were created to sow discord. Russia’s goal is to destabilize U.S. democracy. Stoking racial, cultural, and political tensions in local communities across the U.S. via creating events on Facebook is a cheap and effective way for Russian trolls to do this.
Russia’s use of social media to disseminate propaganda and stoke political tension is an ongoing problem. Last fall, Sens. Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA), leaders of the Senate intelligence committee, issued a bipartisan warning that Russian trolls would continue their actions into the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential elections to sow chaos. A ThinkProgress article on the now-defunct website BlackMattersUS.com illustrates how sophisticated propaganda operations can use content, online campaigns, offline events, and relationships with local activists to develop trust and credibility online. And as the successful dueling event demonstrate, all Americans, no matter what their political persuasion, are susceptible to these influence operations.
As Recode Executive Editor Kara Swisher pointed out on MSNBC today, we’re in an “ongoing war.” There’s no easy way to tell if the content we see on our social media feeds comes from Russian trolls or other hostile actors. There’s no media literacy course or easily available resource that can teach individuals how to identify propaganda. That’s why regulation that protects consumers such as stricter disclosure of political ads and safeguards against fraud is so vital to solving this problem. Especially as tech companies have proven reluctant to make any real changes beyond what public pressure demands of them.