MEMBERS ONLY: Russia’s Exploitation of Facebook Is More Terrifying Than You Think

by Bob Cesca

Somehow, this story involves yogurt. You might recall a sidebar during last year’s election season about Chobani, the Greek yogurt people. The company made headlines, especially on pro-Trump racist sites like InfoWars and WorldNetDaily, when executives decided to hire resettled refugees as workers for their Twin Falls, Idaho factory. In fact, Chobani sued Alex Jones’ InfoWars site for suggesting that there was a “500 percent increase in tuberculosis in Twin Falls” due to the company’s hiring of immigrant workers.

Just a little over a year ago, according to an exclusive from The Daily Beast, an event was scheduled for Twin Falls to protest against both Chobani and the apparent influx of refugees and immigrants into the United States (even though illegal immigration was a net-negative that year, meaning more people left the country than entered). The protest rally, dubbed “Citizens before refugees,” was promoted on Facebook in part by a group known as SecuredBorders, which claims to have been the brainchild of the event. 

Boasting 133,000 followers, which is quite respectable, SecuredBorders was shut down by Facebook last month after it was discovered to have been a front for a Russian propaganda effort to stir up discord in American politics and to support both Donald Trump (and secondarily Bernie Sanders) for the purpose of damaging Hillary Clinton. In other words, this Twin Falls event and possibly countless others were injected into the social media bloodstream of the 2016 election by Russian intelligence under the management of the Kremlin.

National security expert Malcolm Nance on Wednesday morning’s Stephanie Miller Show called it “marionetting.”   

The story dovetails with a previous report issued quietly by Facebook, we learned that Russian trolls had purchased $100,000 in negative advertising against Hillary Clinton during the election cycle, possibly reaching upwards of 70 million users. This, of course, is only the beginning. Mother Jones‘ A.J. Vicens wrote this week that Facebook is hiding additional evidence of Russian propaganda, and David Corn told Rachel Maddow that this is just the tip of a huge iceberg — a metaphor I’ve been repeating since July, 2016. 

So, we should be prepared for more reports like this one, expanding the scope of what Russia was able to achieve. Worse, it’s more than likely to continue in preparation for next year’s midterm elections, only this time Russia will be a more experienced enemy equipped with lessons learned and more robust tools for disruption at its disposal. Oh, and the Trump White House is doing exactly zero to mitigate the threat.

Feeling “great again?”   

The crisis is just beginning. Unless social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter endeavor to self-police more vigorously, deploying support staff and algorithms to weed out deliberate foreign attempts to manufacture chaos in our politics, things could get much, much worse.

How?

Mainly, without any measures to push back against the propaganda, it’d be relatively easy for Russia to influence actual legislation beyond simply gathering kompromat on various public officials (Trump and Dana Rohrabacher, to name two). If Russia was able to exploit the clickbait tendencies of Facebook to spark interest in a protest rally, attackers could easily supplement the plot to achieve bigger and more visible results. Indeed, Russia could literally manufacture new and harrowingly divisive issues just by deploying enough ads, bots and trolls on social media to get actual Americans to debate that issue — going so far as to appear en masse for protest rallies in the same of supporting or opposing this fake issue.

Then, what’ll happen if enough Facebook users help to circulate the fake issue (again, manufactured by Russia)? It might generate enough popular outcry for state legislatures or members of Congress to start the process of legislating based on the artificially-created issue or crisis. 

For example, let’s say an emboldened Kremlin decided it’d be advantageous for it to insert the issue of, I don’t know, “mandatory sterilization for abortion recipients” into the debate. Suddenly, we’re all debating a fake issue that no one was actually discussing prior to the Russian trolls shoving it into our social media platforms. From there, what if state legislatures controlled by far-right anti-choice Republicans began to pass legislation based on popular demand?

If you think this is far-fetched, consider this: Donald Trump has advanced at least two bogus stories since the inauguration. 

First, he repeated the loony theory that three million illegal voters cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in California. This was obviously untrue, especially knowing that in-person voter fraud is statistically nonexistent. Yet he established a commission headed by Kris Kobach to investigate the issue which, at the very least, keeps this non-issue issue alive. 

Likewise, Trump also circulated a fake story about how President Obama “wire tapped” Trump Tower. This was followed by more than a little controversy, with GOP members of Congress struggling to discover why and how Obama surveilled Trump. And, once again, we discovered that there’s zero basis for the claim. Trump’s own Justice Department reported that no such wire-tapping occurred.

But here we have two major presidential-level stories that started out as someone’s fever dream and suddenly, fast forwarding ahead a few days, Congress and the Justice Department jumped into action to investigate. It’d be just as easy for the Kremlin to invent a similar controversy, then to generate public outcry about it, followed by congressional action. 

In other words, unless social media platforms and the federal government do something to thwart this crisis soon, it’s entirely conceivable that Vladimir Putin could control a decent chunk of our political/legislative agenda. Hell, Russia was able to insert its hand-picked candidate into the White House by employing hackers and exploiting our usage of social media. Is it that much of a stretch to also influence favorable lawmaking? Clearly not.