The trolling of social media platforms by propagandists who preyed on Americans' deep distrust of their political opponents was unprecedented in 2016, and it isn’t going away, according to analysts with deep ties to the political consulting industry.
“It sort of suggests American politics is—it’s pretty easy to figure out our messaging,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia Center for Politics' Crystal Ball newsletter. “The public hates the other side so much that they basically believe anything that you can say about the other side, even if it is ridiculous.”
“This is all brand-new,” said John Zogby, pollster and editorial board member of Campaign and Elections, the trade publication for political consultants. “This is a creature of both globalization and technology... simply because [we have] the capacity to disseminate disinformation on such a huge level. And this is the wave of the future.”
Democrats in Congress last week released dozens of ads placed by Russians on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. Samplings of Russian-created messages were posted on mainstream media websites, showing a spectrum of messages aimed at inciting sympathy or revulsion among politically left and right constituencies. These excerpts, however, are just the tip of a much bigger messaging iceberg.
On Medium.com, a page curated by USHadrons is linked to subpages filled with posts created by Russian-sponsored accounts. Each of these pages contains scores, sometimes hundreds, of political messages and memes. As Rep. Andre Carson, D-IN, said, they embody "the worst kind of identity politics." The pages are filled with images and messages designed to provoke or engage on a visceral level. If there is a common goal, it appears to be discouraging people to vote for Hillary Clinton and more generally, centrist Democrats, by attacking from the left and right.
Here are a few of the images. First is from “Muslim Voice”:
This one is from “South United.”
This one is from “Stop All Invaders.”
Other pages collected by USHadrons include the Russian Twitter account USA_Gunslinger, Russian social media group Native Americans United, Russian Twitter account Black Business, Russian Twitter account Blacks 4 Blacks, Russian social media group MericanFury, Russian Twitter account Watch.The.Police, Russian social media group Muslim Voice, Russian social media group Feminism_Tag, Russian social media group Rainbow_Nation_US, Russian social media group South United, Russian social media group Stop All Invaders, and many more. You get the idea.
Commentators have noted many takeaways from 2016's outbreak of messaging. From the standpoint of knowing your adversary, the Russians seem to know what provokes Americans as well as any domestic political consultant. Stepping back, Facebook, Twitter and the other big platforms certainly helped to deliver messages favorable to Donald Trump, although it is unknowable how decisive these messages were in motivating actual voters.
From a legal standpoint, there is no way to regulate this type of messaging because campaign finance laws are tied to what’s called express advocacy—"vote for" or "vote against" phrases—whereas these messages lack those key words. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans have not been very interested in understanding what Russia—and American partisans—did with social media in 2016. (That’s not surprising, since their side emerged with a lock on federal power in 2016.)
Political Campaigns Will Not Be The Same
Kondik and Zogby make larger points. To start, Kondik noted that just because Republicans used social media more than Democrats in 2016, doesn’t mean it won’t be used against the GOP in the near future.
“I think there is an acknowledgement out there that the Trump campaign and Republicans were more effective at using just digital advertising in 2016,” Kondik said. “There’s actually at story today about PrioritiesUSA, the Democratic outside group, is going to spend $50 million on digital in certain places over the next few years over the cycles. It raised some eyebrows because PrioritiesUSA did a lot more traditional television advertising in the last cycle.”
“Maybe that’s in response to what they see as more effective spending by not just Republicans, but frankly, by Russian trolls in the last election too,” Kondik added. “It may also be that because of the way we consume information now, particularly over social media, it may be that that stuff is both the most effective and the least regulated. And also the most untruthful, too… That’s possible.”
Zogby’s biggest point was the country has entered a new era of saturation and extremist messaging. A decade ago it would have been all but impossible to create and disseminate this kind of political propaganda, he said.
“You couldn’t,” Zogby said. “Just go back to an era of newspapers and periodicals. You had to buy all those [ads] for starts. And then physically, how much time could you spend [making them]? Take the political junkies who collected and absorbed a lot of information. That’s a person who had to pay for subscriptions and spend an enormous amount of time doing it—clearing his or her desk for the next batches [of ads]. It was physically not possible. And it was also physically not possible to generate so many images.”
Today, self-publishing software means almost anyone, anywhere, can create incendiary political ads and find ways to distribute them online, Zogby pointed out. In their congressional testimony, executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google said these kinds of propagandistic messages were shared millions of times.
How many people could have put this together?
“With the internet the way it is, you have click houses, right?” Zogby replied, “in Bangladesh and Romania, where you can generate millions and millions of visits and clicks. But there is also the capacity to take photographs from a smartphone as opposed to going out and buying a camera. This could be a dozen people, and going viral. It could be hundreds of people. We probably will never know because they are not all in one place working in a factory. But this is our world. This is our life. A genie is out of the bottle here.”
Zogby also agreed it would all but impossible to regulate these ads, given First Amendment rights to political speech and the nature of social media. He sympathized with the executives who were grilled, because what members of Congress didn’t quite understand is how the internet itself facilitated this.
“I can’t even begin to put my arms around regulating that,” he said. “First of all, who? Who do I invite to testify before Congress [as a regulator]? They bring this poor guy in from Facebook yesterday and badger him, saying, you couldn’t control it? And the guy has a look on his face: Control what? How? Who? Where?"
Zogby’s biggest question was whether the new messaging was effective. The most-viewed posts had 100,000 to 300,000 shares, while some had only 100 reactions and a few dozen shares. That means they were part of an overall media landscape where prejudices were continually being reinforced on social media.
“But the bottom line is, did this impact the election?" he asked. "I suppose we will never know."
It may be that the impact of this new category of messaging is somewhat akin to the Republican catalog of voter suppression tactics. Both may play more significant roles in lower turnout elections, where every little swipe and hurdle thrown at would-be voters has a potentially greater impact.
“But then you have to really ask yourself, do you really want to nominate somebody who doesn’t have the capacity to generate high interest?” Zogby said, referring to Clinton's candidacy. “Why on the same day that Hillary wins the national popular voter by 2.4 percent, do the exit polls show Obama would have outpolled Trump by 13 points?”
No matter what could or should have been in 2016, what’s clear is the introduction of propaganda on social media, whether by the Russians or the Trump campaign or the Democrats in the near future, is here to stay.