After nearly three years of stories about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections — including widespread claims that a Russian troll farm influenced the elections through “meme warfare” on Facebook — Trump’s partnership with the embattled “social” media platform is stronger than ever.
A May 2019 CNN article,“Money, power and data: Inside Trump’s re-election machine,” provided an “exclusive look” into the effort to re-elect Trump that is taking shape in “shiny, modern offices” in Arlington, VA.
“Nearly 20 months out from the presidential election,” the article states, “the Trump campaign is already more organized and better-structured than its 2016 predecessor ever was. It’s hired dozens of staffers, expanded its already impressive data operation, and begun to build out a formidable ground game across the country.”
Notably missing from the story is the alleged interference by “Russians” to manipulate our political minds on Facebook. What happened to Facebook’s “Russia problem” that dominated U.S. news following the 2016 elections? Did the platform adjust its targeting mechanism so that outside groups can’t deploy political propaganda to its two billion users?
You probably know the answer. Facebook’s “self-regulations” brought even more surveillance and restrictions for regular users. Today, the platform patriotically requires ad managers on Facebook to provide their Social Security number, a picture of a government-issued ID, and a U.S. mailing address, in order to post various kinds of ads. The ads themselves now display information about their origin.
While these measures made it easy for users to track who is posting Facebook ads and from where, they did not address the “interference” part, meaning the ability of advertisers, Russian and otherwise, to upload consumer and voter data into Facebook and target users on a granular level. Omitting this part of the equation — as U.S. pundits and politicians have done for the past three years — illustrates mainstream media’s unwillingness to expose the pay-to-play relationship between the U.S. oligarchy and Silicon Valley.
Corporate outlets don’t seem to mind Trumpian influence on Facebook. As CNN’s puff piece illustrates, the Trump team’s use of the platform is presented as innovative, rather than a danger to democracy. “It now has hundreds of millions of records and voter history, consumer data. When we put point data into that machine … it can spit out models and say ‘these are the people you need to talk to, these are the messages you should talk to them about’,” Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director, said during the CNN interview.
In a separate interview for CBS, Parscale admitted Facebook, Google, and Twitter employees were embedded in the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, showing up to work “multiple times a week.”
Instead of reporting on how Trump targets millions of Americans through Facebook, mainstream outlets split their coverage into two main narratives — one warned about the dangers of Russian intervention on the platform (citing the 2016 ads as evidence of the attack), while the other embraced Trump’s use of Facebook’s targeting tools.
Although corporate channels were quick to criticize the ways in which the now-defunct Cambridge Analytica, which Parscale hired and worked with, used personal data about Facebook users from an external researcher, few commentators followed the story to its natural conclusion — the ways in which Trump’s 2016 campaign used that data to target the American public with the help of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.
There are many reasons why mainstream commentators are careful not to mix their exhausted “Trump-Russia” narrative with “exclusive looks” into Trump’s 2020 digital campaign. Studies have shown that the troll farm’s campaign blamed for helping Agent Trumpsky in 2016 was not just average in terms of its overall cost ($100,000), but was not at all sophisticated and relied more on local news than “fake news.” According to Facebook, 56% of the troll farm’s ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) occurred after the election and 25% of the ads were never shown to anyone.
By all accounts, the troll farm’s activities were a drop in the bucket compared to Trump’s highly targeted social media propaganda. Whether it was intentional or not, the mainstream media’s hyperfocus on “Russian ads” detracted attention from one of Trump’s biggest advantages heading into 2020.
In the end, blaming Facebook memes for election interface turned out to be an overreach for those trying to sell “Russiagate.” The dominant narrative suffered a major blow when the chief executive of the main source of news about Russian interference on Facebook—a company called New Knowledge (founded in 2015) — was exposed and suspended from Facebook for doing the exact same thing it claimed “Russians” were doing — posting ads on Facebook to manipulate an election.
“As Russia’s online election machinations came to light last year, a group of Democratic tech experts decided to try out similarly deceptive tactics in the fiercely contested Alabama Senate race,” Scott Shane and Alan Blinder wrote in The New York Times in December 2018. “One participant in the Alabama project, Jonathon Morgan, is the chief executive of New Knowledge, a small cyber security firm that wrote a scathing account of Russia’s social media operations in the 2016 election that was released this week by the Senate Intelligence Committee.”
Here’s what the Alabama project entailed:
The project’s operators created a Facebook page on which they posed as conservative Alabamians, using it to try to divide Republicans and even to endorse a write-in candidate to draw votes from Mr. Moore. It involved a scheme to link the Moore campaign to thousands of Russian accounts that suddenly began following the Republican candidate on Twitter, a development that drew national media attention …
The project had a budget of just $100,000, in a race that cost approximately $51 million, including the primaries, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Curiously, the “Alabama project” had the exact same budget as the Russian troll farm — $100,000. Yet, one was described as a “small scale thought experiment,” while the other was cited in Politico as evidence for “our Pearl Harbor.”
For comparison, a leading environmental nonprofit spent six times that amount on Facebook ads last year.
As has become tradition in the mainstream press, news outlets weren’t alarmed by the fact that Morgan, who leads the research firm that produced one of the main reports on Russian disinformation — was himself involved in a disinformation campaign that involved Russian bots. Outside of progressive news shows, there has been little mention of the fact that Morgan, along with two other New Knowledge employees, have connections to the U.S. Army and State Department.
None of these details seem to matter to the press when it comes to reporting on Trump’s use of Facebook. After years of citing trivial ads as evidence for his allegiance to Russia, news agencies have defaulted once again to covering Donald’s campaign without a hint of criticism regarding its online tactics.
“Parscale pushed the campaign to spend half its ad budget online, a move that initially left Trump fuming at Parscale, but is now one of the reasons he sits atop the campaign,” the aforementioned CNN article states. “Already in 2019, the Trump campaign has spent $3.5 million on Facebook ads and another $1 million on Google … That’s nearly double the combined online ad spending for the full Democratic field of presidential candidates.”
To put this in perspective, Trump’s campaign has already spent 35 times more on Facebook this year, than the ads which allegedly played a role in “Russian interference” in the 2016 elections. You won’t hear this comparison on CNN, because it challenges the official narrative about Russian interference and places the focus where it should’ve been all along — Facebook’s targeting tools, ad revenue, and close partnership with the Trump campaign.
We now know that the Mueller report found no evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. This has allowed corporate outlets and journalists, who strategically decoupled “Russian interference” from Trump’s own digital campaign activities, to switch from stories on foreign intervention on Facebook to essentially promoting Facebook’s ad services. Since Democrats and Republicans have a vested interest in using Facebook to target their constituencies, they went along with those narratives.
“You go spend $300 million [on advertising], [and] $100 million dollars on social media, [and] a lot of people show up at your office, wanting to help you spend that money on their platforms,” Parscale said in a interview for the FRONTLINE documentary The Facebook Dilemma. “Facebook would rather have me spend that $100 million on their platform. Twitter would rather me spend it there. Snapchat. Google. They were all wanting to have that money. So teaching us and educating us how to to use that platform as best as possible was a good thing [for Facebook] to do.”
“I don’t want Russia or any foreign entity to meddle in our election any more than any other American,” Parscale said. “I think Facebook and the platforms should regulate and make sure foreign entities don’t come on there. That’s their responsibility, probably. And the government and Facebook will figure that out,” he added.
Facebook and the government have indeed been figuring it out, while pushing their own agenda.
Facebook has used Russiagate as an opportunity to increase its partnerships with outside political groups. In April, 2018 the company announced it will be working with CheckYourFact.com, an offshoot of the Koch-funded, right-leaning news outlet The Daily Caller. A month later, Facebook proclaimed that it will be synergizing with The Atlantic Council, a militant think tank funded by a plethora of corporations and foreign governments including Facebook, Twitter, CNN, the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, United States Department of State, Chevron, and Lockheed Martin.
All in all, Facebook was able to transform the hyperbolic claims about Russian interference into a content moderation campaign targeting those considered a threat by the U.S. government (in-between being battered by founders, ex-employees, and reporters for its numerous immoral business practices).
In February 2019, Facebook, CNN, and the German Marshall Fund collaborated to suspend pages run by Maffick Media, a Russian-funded digital media project that produces videos that cover climate change, history, politics, and current events. Although Facebook does not require users to provide information about parent companies, Maffick Media’s staff were accused of boosting “Kremlin narratives” and interrogated about their political views.
“I’m an American, right? My priority and my responsibility is to challenge destructive policies [of] the government that I pay tax dollars to. And that’s what I focus on in my videos,” Rania Khalek, a Lebanese American commentator who presents some of the company’s videos said in an interview with CNN. “Now, if CNN would like to give me a job to spend my time challenging the war industry and corporations, I’d be happy to do that. But that’s just not the case,” Khalek added.
While the Facebook pages related to Maffick were restored after an uproar from progressive circles, the ordeal illustrated how corporate and state actors can exert pressure on Facebook to censor content that doesn’t sit well with its funders, partners, and fact-checkers.
It’s useful to note that it was the German Marshall Fund that brought records on the ownership of Maffick to the attention of CNN. As Kevin Gosztola at Shadowproof has highlighted, the advisory board for one of the German Marshall Fund’s projects, Alliance For Securing Democracy, includes:
Michael Chertoff, former Homeland Security Department chief, Bill Kristol, who was a board member of the Project for the New American Century, which pushed for the invasion of Iraq, Rick Ledgett, former NSA deputy director, Mike McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Mike Morell, former acting CIA director, John Podesta, former chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, Mike Rogers, former congressman and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, James Stavridis, a former admiral who led European Command, and Jake Sullivan, former national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.”
It’s no secret that Facebook coordinates its censorship activities with U.S. law enforcement and the FBI. What is often left unsaid, however, is that the platform has a big incentive to not squash extremist and hateful content, since that would mean losing substantial ad revenue. The question then becomes which political propaganda should be censored. Unsurprisingly, targeted accounts have included countries and organizations that are either critical of the U.S. or are on Trump’s short list of places to invade next.
By targeting Russian and Iranian pages, Facebook was able to diffuse accountability when it comes to wheeling and dealing with propagandists in “good standing.” Similarly to how the liberal establishment hides behind identity politics to mask their increasingly undemocratic tendencies, Facebook has used the manufactured fear of Iranians (pumped up by the Trump regime) and Russians (amplified by “resisting” Democrats) to simulate anti-interference activities, while continuing their neo-Bernaysian practices.
Facebook’s censorship activities extend well beyond Russia and Iran-related content. In August 2018, the platform banned Venezuela Analysis, the only independent English language website covering news and analysis on Venezuela from a progressive perspective, as well as 800 conservative and left-leaning pages, many of which were operated from the U.S. These actions were a sign of what’s to come — selective censorship based on ambiguous reasoning and phrases like “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
Among those banned were Reverb Press, Anti-Media, and The Free Though Project — pages known for being critical of police brutality, drug laws, and establishment politics. According to CNBC, the removed pages that were traced to Iran were used to push Iranian propaganda “on topics like Israel-Palestine relations and the conflicts in Syria and Yemen, including the role of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.”
Given Facebook’s roster of concerned government and corporate stakeholders, it’s not too presumptuous to assume that the platform operates as a mouthpiece for the U.S. government, regardless of who is in power. Now that the Trump administration is escalating tensions with Iran and Venezuela, while continuously targeting workers, minorities, and people of color at home, the ability to wipe out dissident voices without a credible explanation should be considered a direct threat to American democracy. The same goes to the “social” and traditional media companies that are collaborating with Trump in the name of profit.
The results from the failure of the American press to truly investigate Facebook’s manipulation machine are now clear — CNN continues to blame memes for interfering in the 2016 elections, while fawning over Trump’s ability to actually target and influence the public in 2020. Trump’s team gets to strengthen its partnership with Facebook and enrich what has essentially become an autocratic surveillance and PR company. The Democrats, some of whom are calling for breaking up Facebook, get to join their “nemesis” in sinking millions of dollars in Zuckerberg’s empire through paid ads.
As you might have guessed, we are the losers in this arrangement. Whether you are a progressive, liberal, or conservative there’s a good chance your donations to political candidates will end up as ad revenue for Facebook. There’s an even bigger chance you, your family, and friends are targeted by political ads on a daily basis without even realizing it.
A solution to this dilemma would be for politicians, institutions, and companies to come out against investing money in Facebook ads. I suspect this will eventually happen as more people find out about the close partnerships between politicians and social media executives that have little to do with troll farms in Russia, and a lot more to do with a company that has been used by the U.S. ruling class to implement government censorship and spread corporate propaganda to millions of Americans.