Russia’s divide-and-disrupt strategy on social media

Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, compared the Russians’ social-media tactics in the 2016 election to the way “criminal predators” stalk their prey. They dangle something to ingratiate themselves to their potential victims, then, “boom, they come in for the kill,” Harris said.

In the case of the Russian exploitation of Facebook, Twitter and Google to disrupt American democracy by intensifying divisions among us to boost the candidacy of Donald Trump, the Democratic senator from California explained in a phone interview from Washington, “the American people were their prey.”

Social media advertising linked to Russian accounts, a sampling of which was made public last week, showed the sophistication in the targeting of American voters. For example, an adult whose “likes” and shares of online content reflected an interest in Christianity and right-wing personalities such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly would be singled out for a good-versus-evil post portraying Hillary Clinton as Satan in a struggle against Jesus Christ.

In very calculated ways, the Russians were able to figure out how to weaponize the algorithms of social media — the ability to customize content to receptive users — to inflame hatreds, cynicism and distrust among Americans toward one another and our institutions. While many of the posts had a pro-Trump bent, directly or indirectly, there were some that played to strong feelings in favor of causes such as Black Lives Matter.

“They sought to amplify the divisions that existed in our country,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Dublin, a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Still, in ads that featured Trump and Clinton, “it was clear they had a favored candidate,” Swalwell added in a phone interview Friday.

There is no way of knowing how many Americans may had been motivated to vote or became dispirited and stayed home because of this stealth social media campaign. There also is no evidence to date that Team Trump or any other campaign helped point the Russian invaders to critical battleground areas.

Yet this much is certain: This was an attack on our democracy, every bit as much as the hacking of the Democratic National Committee emails that led to a succession of unflattering revelations about the party leadership’s efforts on behalf of Clinton.

Facebook has estimated that 126 million people may have been served content from a page associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency in 2015 and 2016. Not all of those posts would have been viewed. But the scale and intent of the assault is evident.

“They had a goal of disrupting our democracy” by undermining Americans’ confidence in their government and its institutions, noted Harris, a member of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence.

Adding “insult to injury,” said Swalwell, was the fact that a Russian government-supported news network received ad-sharing revenue from the 1,100 YouTube videos it posted.

“Not only were they interfering and trying to undermine our election, they got a return profit on that, which is completely maddening,” Swalwell said.

This is an example of cyberwarfare in the 21st century.

The big question at the hearings on Capitol Hill last week was: How could this happen? These social media giants have come up with filters to screen out content, and thus keep operating, in countries with governments that are highly sensitive to their citizens protesting and organizing on the Internet. Surely they would have the technical tools and the will to protect their home country from foreign propaganda designed to unsettle our democracy. Right?

The answer from the three organizations, in short: We need to do better.

Some lawmakers were irked that the social media giants sent their lawyers, rather than their chief executives, to the meeting. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was sharing upbeat news on an earnings call with financial analysts while his general counsel was taking heat on Capitol Hill. Its online ads business had risen by 49 percent in the third quarter.

Perhaps the most devastating exchange of the week came when Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., pressed Facebook’s general counsel Colin Stretch about why no red flags were raised when batches of political ads were purchased with Russian rubles.

“You put billions of data points together all the time,” Franken said. “That’s what I hear these platforms do: They’re the most sophisticated things invented by man, ever. Google has all knowledge that man has ever developed. You can’t put together rubles with a political ad and go, hmm, these two data points spell out something bad?”

Stretch’s answer was impossibly lame: “Senator, it’s a signal we should have been alert to and in hindsight.”

Rubles plus political ads equals something suspicious. It shouldn’t take a Silicon Valley genius to add it up.

Harris also received weak “we’ll get back to you” answers when she pushed Google, Twitter and Facebook to disclose how much they had profited from legitimate ads placed on bogus content. Again: really? These companies that pride themselves on their skill at monetizing granular data have not been able to readily calculate their bottom line from their unwitting role in these schemes?

Here’s the most unsettling takeaway from last week’s hearings. The social media companies have not necessarily figured out how to counter the last cyberbattle.

“I asked each of them: Can you assure us that you know the full extent that the Russians were using their platforms,” Swalwell said. “And their answer was ‘no.’”

And there is every reason to believe the Russians are preparing for the next one, in the 2018 midterms or the 2020 presidential election.

“Next time, they (the Russians) are going to be smarter,” Harris said.

It does not take a leap of imagination to assume other U.S. adversaries, whether North Korea or Iran or China, have taken note of the angst Russia inflicted on our electorate and institutions.

“You think they’re not going to try?” Harris asked. “We have to be prepared.”