If you’ve happened to turn on the news anytime in the past six months, you’ve probably heard that Russia did a little meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. There are countless rumors and, yes, fake news stories swirling around, but what’s the real story? How did Russia actually influence a free election in the country that lauds itself as the greatest democracy in the world?
Well, there is currently an ongoing ‘Special Counsel’ investigation, run by former-FBI director Robert Mueller, into the Trump administration’s dealings with Russia. The purpose of this investigation is to find out if there was any collusion between Americans and Russians to influence the election and a lot of what they know is confidential. What the public does know is that Russia influenced voter opinion in 2016 primarily through Facebook and Google. Executives from the tech giants will be meeting with government committees this month to discuss how they let this happen and how to stop it from ever happening again. Welcome to 21st century information warfare.
How did Russia use Facebook to fix an election?
First things first: Russia didn’t really ‘hack’ or ‘fix’ or ‘rig’ the U.S. election with Facebook. There are investigations into actual rigging of voter machines, but none of that has been proven to date. These terms are purposefully inflammatory to grab attention in a headline, but it’s not really true to what Russia did with Facebook. They swayed public opinion by buying ads and producing fake articles and even memes.
Facebook revealed that a Russian company known for ‘trolling’ and linked to the Kremlin bought $100,000 worth of Facebook ads between June 2015 and May 2017. These weren’t ads for a specific candidate; their purpose was to create division and further polarize an already deeply divided country. The ads notably included anti-Muslim propaganda–likely meant to push people towards Trump and his hard stance on immigration–and fake Black Lives Matter reports making protests seem more violent–meant to make Trump’s base feel threatened and foster extremism. Facebook estimates that these ads were seen by about 10 million people.
The ads weren’t distributed evenly across the United States either. CNN learned exclusively from several sources that the ads seemed to target Michigan and Wisconsin specifically–two well-known swing states that were crucial to Trump’s win.
We really only have confirmed numbers for Facebook at the moment, but Twitter has also been named and Google is currently investigating if third-parties could have exploited their services including Gmail and YouTube. According to Facebook, their system is still vulnerable to this kind of meddling and could be exploited similarly in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections.
What does this have to do with the Trump investigation?
The million dollar question here is: how did Russian hackers know what states to target and which issues would be most influential? Yes, the election was highly publicized, but American investigators say there was a ‘sophistication’ to the Russian ad campaign that would suggest they had insider information from an American source.
There is no official word on if this source was from within the government or even exists at all, but that is part of what Mueller’s team is looking at in its wide-reaching investigation. (Well, that and a bunch of other stuff).
So the question isn’t if Russia meddled in the election; it’s how much did they meddle and did they have help?
It could possibly be years before we get any real answers to these questions. Until then, we guess we’ll just grab some maple-flavoured popcorn and watch all this drama unfold from across the border.