As the dust settles from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s bombshell indictment of a number of Russians for their social media interference operations, the extent of their reach and influence remains an open question.
Nonetheless, the argument that the Facebook operation coordinated out of St. Petersburg was sloppy, and thus ineffective, gained new prominence this week — even though the little data we have on hand points to a reach that would make other groups blush with envy.
The New Yorker’s Adrian Chen kicked off the line of argument with an appearance on MSNBC this week, noting that the Russian operatives behind the fake accounts had a “bare grasp of the English language, and not a full understanding of who they’re targeting, what they’re targeting.”
Chen — whose 2015 dive into Russia’s Internet Research Agency introduced many Americans to the group — added on Twitter that they were simply “shitposting on Facebook.” His New Yorker colleague, Masha Gessen, further pointed that the social media efforts were “not at all sophisticated.”
To be sure, both Chen and Gessen are correct; it’s difficult to look through all of the egregious typos, the bizarre syntax, and the coloring-book ads for “Buff Bernie Sanders” and conclude that the Russian social media operations were somehow sophisticated.
But a lack of basic English skills or use of perplexing sentence structure is by no means a barrier to gaining a massive online following, and influence therein. (See: Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.) And when it comes to the Russian social media operations, it’s worth keeping a couple points in mind about their reach, their success, and their spread — at least, from what Facebook has deigned to share with reporters and researchers thus far.
- The fake Russian “Blacktivist” Facebook account — which had just as many typos, odd sentence constructions, and laughable posts as the others — managed to gain tens of thousands more followers than the official Black Lives Matter account, as CNN found. For good measure, the Russian “Sincerely_black_” Instagram account also had tens of thousands more followers than the most popular Black Lives Matter account on the platform.
- At one point in 2016, the Russian “Heart of Texas” Facebook account — the one that organized armed white supremacists in downtown Houston — boasted more followers than the official Texas Democrat and Texas Republican pages combined.
- Before it was taken down, the Russian “United Muslims of America” Facebook account had hundreds of thousands more followers than the official account for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). And on Instagram, the Russian “Muslim_voice” account had nearly 100,000 followers before it was pulled. CAIR currently has about 4,000.
- All told, nearly 150 million Facebook and Instagram users were unwittingly exposed to Russian propaganda — all on a budget that ran only a few million dollars.
- And that’s only on Facebook; on Twitter, the Russian Internet Research Agency managed to see one of their accounts, @TEN_GOP, end up as “the seventh most mentioned user on Election Day Twitter,” per The Daily Beast.
Further, these highlights are only among the Russian Facebook pages that we know about. In September, Facebook announced that it had identified “about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages” that were “likely operated out of Russia.”
However, according to ThinkProgress’ calculations, only 30 fake Russian Facebook groups have thus far been identified and confirmed. That is to say, either the Russian Internet Research Agency created an additional 440 accounts posing as individuals or there are dozens, and potentially hundreds, of other Russian Facebook pages that Facebook hasn’t yet announced, and that journalists haven’t yet discovered.
As with every other step along the way — from providing numbers on how many users were affected, to notifying those users that they’d been following fake Russian accounts — Facebook has dragged its feet when it comes to transparency. Questions from ThinkProgress about the total number of Russian pages, or whether Facebook would release a comprehensive list of fake Russian pages, went unanswered.
Some six months after Facebook first announced it had discovered these hundreds of fake Russian accounts and pages, we still have only a small window into the operations. Questions remain regarding their reach, the full extent of their impact, and the other legitimate American groups whose follower counts were dwarfed by those sitting in St. Petersburg. We also have no answer as to how these pages impacted the election. Nor will we likely find one: as Gessen noted, “It is exceedingly unlikely that we will ever have a clear understanding of whether Russian meddling affected the outcome of the election.”
And she is, again, correct. Yet we do know that these fake Russian pages exceeded, sometimes by multiple magnitudes, the reach of their American counterparts, pushing their messages along the way. These fake Russian pages may not have contained clear English, or been at all sophisticated. But as we’ve learned over the past few months, a lack of sophistication hardly means you’ll find a lack of success.