The ongoing investigation into Russian influence in the US election is looking more and more like an existential threat to big tech. A couple of weeks back, Facebook, hauled up in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, revealed that up to 126 million people saw political adverts that had been purchased by the Kremlin backed ‘Internet Research Agency’, between 2015-2017. It turned over 3,000 ads to investigators, which had been placed through almost 500 accounts and 120 pages.
It's not just Facebook, of course. Twitter also provided Congress with the handles of around 36,000 Russian linked bots who tweeted a total of 1.4 million times in the two months before the election. The company estimates that their tweets were viewed nearly 300 million times. Google found 1,108 videos uploaded by Russian-linked accounts, netting 309,000 YouTube views altogether. The intention, it seems, was to both help Trump and generally gaslight Americans by sowing disunity and confusion. No doubt there is more to come – because of the nature of internet communications and how hard it is to verify who's who – no-one really know how deep the rabbit hole goes.
It seems to have only just dawned on law-makers that these open, ad-driven, hyper-connected platforms are open to everyone, not just people trying to sell you holidays, health food and waterproof jackets. This puts these tech firms in a very tight bind indeed. If they acknowledge that all this stuff influenced people, they are admitting to having potentially changed the course of the election by being paid to allow Russian disinformation to sit on their sites. If they minimise the impact of this content, they risk undermining their entire business model. After all, their core offer is that they can reach and influence people. Last year, $10.1bn of Facebook’s $10.3bn revenue was through advertising.
It opens a much larger issue of social media’s influence on democracy. Back in the 2012 election, millions of voters told the world about their little civic act by posting 'I voted' on Facebook. The company estimated that friends who saw that these posts were themselves slightly more likely to vote as a result: so much so that Facebook may have increased turnout by 340,000 people. This is great news, but also cause for concern since it means tweaking the algorithm could subtly influence entire elections. The 2000 presidential race was won by just 537 votes. There is no evidence Facebook have or would do such a thing of course, but simply having that sort of power makes people nervous.
Trump’s team understood the power of the platform. A few months after his victory, I travelled with the BBC to San Antonio, Texas, to interview a woman called Theresa Hong, who was Trump’s digital content director during the campaign. According to Hong, the digital team – around 100 people based in a non-descript and now mostly empty office off a busy freeway – used data sets on around 220 million Americans created by the analytics firm Cambridge Analytica. From that they built sophisticated ‘universes’ of users, broken down into key target groups, such as ‘American mums worried about childcare who hadn’t voted before’ or ‘pro-gun men in the mid-West.’ Hong’s team would then craft adverts designed to appeal to these groups.
There was really only one platform that could serve these messages up to such finely tuned target groups. Hong’s team spent tens of millions of dollars on Facebook advertising to reach her universes, running up to one hundred adverts a day, and often thousands of versions of each, constantly tweaking to see what version performed best. This isn’t a simple task, and so big clients sometimes get help from Facebook directly. Sitting right across the room from Theresa Hong was a Facebook employee, who had been seconded into the team, and whose job it was to help Trump’s team get the most for their money. ‘[Facebook] gave us the white glove treatment’, Hong told me. She couldn’t sing their praises highly enough. ‘They were our hands-on partners as far as being able to utilise the platform effectively’.
It is of course impossible to be sure how far these techniques were decisive in swinging the election. But Hong thinks it was. ‘Without Facebook, we wouldn’t have won,’ she told me. ‘Facebook really and truly put us over the edge’. Trump agrees. He told Fox News last month that he wouldn't have won without social media. Mark Zuckerberg inadvertently helped Donald Trump get elected. And he even got paid for it too. (Clinton did it too of course - Trump was just better at it.)
Following the Senate hearing, Facebook pledged more transparency about political advertising. A welcome move, but it's hard to see exactly how. Perhaps direct advertising could be more tightly regulated. But what of all the soft and subtle propaganda pumped out, all day every day, from all over the world? A recent report found that Russia is still pushing divisive messages across social media platforms through complex networks of spoof accounts, bots, and paid humans in click farms. So what’s it to be? Do these ads and content work – and therefore potentially swing elections, even if it involves nefarious groups outside the US? Or does online content not really make much of a difference after all? Either way, it’s bad news.