Could you throw a U.S. Presidential election for just a few dollars per day?

Could you throw a U.S. Presidential election for just a few dollars per day?

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Parties in Russia bought ads on U.S. social media regarding candidates for U.S. President in 2016. About $100,000 was spent on Facebook ads, of which 44% was spent prior to the election. Additional actions took place on Twitter and Instagram. “Fake posts” were also created on social media for the purpose of being Liked, Shared and Commented on. It is claimed that about $2 million total was spent by the “American” department of the Internet Research Agency in Russia.
The leading U.S. Presidential candidates raised (and presumably spent) a little over $2.1 billion dollars for their campaigns, according to citing data from the Center for Responsive Politics. It is not clear from the listing if this includes the primary election phase or the election in November. Let’s assume that it includes the primary elections too. Also note that this is fundraising totals, not spending totals.
Let’s further assume this money was spent starting from January 1, 2016 on wards to the election on November 8, 2016. This comes to a little over $6 million spent every day on campaigning from January 1st up to November 8th.
Meanwhile, according to Facebook, actors in Russia placed ads on their social media platform. According to Facebook,

“For 50% of the ads, less than $3 was spent; for 99% of the ads, less than $1,000 was spent”

44% of the ads appeared prior to the November 8th election with 56% appearing afterwards. Which suggests that in terms of the pre-election campaign, the dollar values in the above quote can be cut in half to about $1.50 and $500.

How were these ads identified as having originated in Russia?
According to Facebook, they used a variety of methods including “very weak signals of a connection” such as ads bought from U.S. accounts using U.S. IP addresses but with their computer attributes set to support the Russian language and Cyrillic character set:

An allegation has been made that purchase of Facebook ads threw the election for Donald Trump – or that social media operations in general threw the election:

  • If this is true, then $44,000 worth of Facebook advertising is the most powerful and economical form of persuasion in all of human history. You can throw a national election for a few dollars per day in spending!
  • (Updated) The Russian journalist who was first to report on the Internet Research Agency and their social media activities during the 2016 election saysOnly 90 people with $2 million made America scared!”. That’s a 1000:1 ratio of campaign spending versus the total social media operation. Neither the Democrat nor Republican Party was smart enough to figure out they could have thrown the election for just $2 million?
  • 1,320 social media ads costing $44,000 threw a U.S. national election. This implies Facebook is the grandest propaganda platform in world history. We have lost everything.

Is it legal for foreigners to “speak out on global issues” including US politics? Yes.
Last night I watched a Youtube video from a young woman in Norway discussing – in very good English – her thoughts on the U.S. election and which U.S. candidate she supported. Similarly, I have seen social media posts from U.S. citizens commenting or advocating for positions in other countries including Israel, Pakistan, India, Mexico, Canada and places such as the European Union.
The U.S. does have laws regarding foreigners actively participating in the U.S. elections but the U.S. does not have laws prohibiting foreigners from having public comments and opinions about U.S. politics (nor could the U.S. do so).
Consequently, foreign actors can – legally – post items on social media that may be interpreted as influencing U.S. elections.
From a U.S. perspective, posting commentary on other nation’s affairs on social media is not illegal. We may view it as unethical or unfair but it is not illegal. U.S. citizens, organizations and government agencies do this all the time too, both as informal propagandizing (individual user posts and shares) and as organized propaganda campaigns.
What Does It Mean?
I have written a number of posts about social media propaganda connected to Russia.

  • My view is that Russia-based actors conducted a propaganda operation in the U.S. (but I have no way to know, only to interpret the propaganda messaging directed at all of us to persuade us that this occurred).
  • A portion of the messaging seems related to for profit “fake news” publishing businesses creating emotionally laden click-bait links for ad revenue.
  • The evidence, including from the U.S. DoJ indictment conclusions, is that the impact was minimal.
  • Alternatively, you can believe that Facebook ad buys are many orders of magnitude more effective than any other media outlet – why would people still be buying ads on TV and radio and newspapers?
  • Posts on social media created by propagandists, Liked, Shared and Commented on were likely a far larger presence than ad buys.
  • Such posts, however, should be viewed in the context of the massive amount of social media propaganda spread by organizations, individuals and U.S. based fake news business operations. For example, I see numerous social media propaganda messages shared and liked everyday – yet Facebook itself says I never saw a single Russia connected ad or post. During the election season and before I began unfollowing propagandists, I saw at least a dozen propaganda posters each day and at least a dozen propaganda related posts each day – yet none apparently from the Russian operation. We are drowning in a sea of propaganda.

The main benefit of an investigation into Russia connected actors throwing the U.S. election is an awareness of the power of social media platforms for the friction-less spread of propaganda messaging. Unfortunately, there has been little attention given to propaganda in the broader context – Russia connected propaganda were not the only propaganda operations and were likely a tiny fraction of the overall propaganda efforts on social media.
We are missing a huge opportunity to understand and address these issues – the consequences of unbridled social media propaganda operations coming from numerous parties inside the U.S. and around the world. We are missing this opportunity because of a politically driven focus on Russia and avoiding the root issue: the frightening power of social media as a friction-less platform for the spread of propaganda.

The danger is not Russia – or China – or U.S. based propagandists – the danger is the friction-less platform of social media for propaganda messaging.
The root cause problem is the social media platform that enables free and friction-less dissemination or propaganda messaging.

Disclaimer (update 2/19/2018): In our unbelievably divisive culture, people jump to conclusions and make assertions that are not true. I have written about propaganda messaging for some time. Propaganda is a topic that only recently caught the attention of the mainstream media and social media posters – and their focus is nearly exclusively about Russia connected propaganda. Indeed, the media’s own propaganda messaging is that propaganda originates primarily from governments, which is false.
Because I look at propaganda in a broad sense and do my best to stick with evidence, I cannot – yet – roll with the meme that the U.S. election was thrown by a $2 million propaganda operation in Russia.
Some interpret this (I’ve heard from them) that (a) I am Trump supporter, (b) I am defending Trump, (c) I am a commie defending Russia, and so on. Once again, for the record: I did not support Trump, I did not vote for Trump and I have no interests in or with Russia. Furthermore, over a 6 week period in the spring of 2016, I watched the Trump primary campaign in organizational disarray and concluded that for someone seen as a successful businessman, he was seriously lacking in basic management skills. The lack of management and modern leadership skills was my main concern then and continues to be my main concern today.

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