A Welcome Reduction In Hysteria As We Are Hearing Less About Foreign Hacking Of The 2018 Election (For Now)

The New York Times today asks, Where Are The Russians? In other words, they have bought the sensationalized and highly exaggerated media accounts of Russia’s impact on the 2016 election, and are now surprised that they cannot find evidence that Russia is trying to hack the 2018 election.

Aaron Maté has a more reality-based view at The Nation in writing,With Just Days to the Midterms, Russiagate Is MIA–And that’s a good thing. He wrote, that despite all the “histrionics,” Russia has been found to have done little of consequence:

Russia’s alleged midterm sabotage to date has been disclosed in a newly unsealed criminal complaint against an employee of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm previously indicted for using fake accounts to spread divisive content on social media. The defendant, Elena Khusyaynova, is not even directly accused of online manipulation. Instead, she is singled out for being the chief accountant for “Project Lakhta,” an IRA initiative that targeted audiences in Russia and around the world, including the United States. The only actions directly ascribed to Khusyaynova concern her “meticulous record-keeping and management” of IRA funds.

As with the initial indictment of 13 IRA employees in February, prosecutors accuse IRA trolls of using social media “to sow discord in the U.S. political system and to undermine faith in our democratic institutions,” including in the upcoming midterms. But reading the fine print, it is difficult to see how that purported aim can be taken seriously. In the first six months of 2018, Khusyaynova submitted expenditures of $60,000 for advertisements on Facebook and $6,000 on Instagram. The only advertising-related activity that gets detailed in the complaint is an alleged IRA employee’s offering to give organizers of an anti-Trump protest $80 for a Facebook ad. (It’s unclear if the proposal was accepted). The IRA’s alleged social-media accounts impersonated both liberal and conservative personas. The complaint shows six images that were posted by Russian trolls to Facebook; the most impactful of the bunch appears to be a thinly disguised anti-Muslim ad that attracted 104 comments.

Some of this content is overtly racist and bigoted; other posts are banal. All are so juvenile or inconsequential that it is difficult to see how they could have vastly greater influence than the millions of other pieces of political clickbait littering the Internet. The IRA’s social-media imprint seems to have as much impact now as it did during the 2016 election. Back then, the IRA spent a reported on $100,000 on Facebook ads, with most of those ads having nothing to do with the election, and more than half of that total spent after the election.

According to Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch, posts generated by suspected Russian accounts between 2015 and 2017 represented “a tiny fraction of the overall [News Feed] content on Facebook.… about four-thousandths of one percent (0.004%) of content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content.” The widely cited figure that “material generated by the Kremlin had reached a hundred and twenty-six million American Facebook users,” (The New Yorker) is in fact a creative take on Facebook’s own speculation. “Our best estimate,” Stretch testified to Congress in October 2017, “is that approximately 126 million people may have been served one of these [IRA] stories at some time during the two year period.” So the 126 million figure is an “estimate” of how many people “may have been served” one piece of IRA content—most unrelated to the 2016 election—in their Facebook feeds over two years. Over on Twitter, a new analysis by the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab finds that “Russia’s troll operation primarily targeted Russian speakers,” posting “significantly more in Russian than in English.”

Maté went on to further debunk many of the Russiagate claims, seeing them as no more than “fodder for ongoing efforts intent on convincing Americans that unsophisticated social-media trolling could somehow divide and weaken their society.” He showed problems with claims that Russia penetrated state voting systems and the many problems with media coverage of Russiagate, as I, and others, have also done many times in the the past.

Matt Taibbi also discussed the problems with coverage of Russia in an interview with Recode, pointing out, “You see a lot of stories where there are four unnamed intelligence sources all saying something that is totally unverifiable.” He discussed additional problems with some stories:

So recently we had a story that … I’ll give you two. Okay? There was one from pretty early on where the New York Times said, “Trump campaign officials had repeat contacts with Russian intelligence.” All right? And again, it was four current and former officials, none of them named. Now, I knew and anybody who lived in Russia knew that you constantly have contact with intelligence officials there often, whether you know it or not. And the story didn’t specify whether the contract was knowing or unknowing, like what the nature of it was, but the headline was incredibly damning, right?

I was very concerned about the vagueness of it, the inability to verify it. And then, sure enough, James Comey came out months later and said, “Well, that story isn’t true.” All right? And so if I’m the reporters, I’m really pissed about that, right? Like, “you burned me on this.”

Right.

Then later, more recently, we had a story that said, “Oh, all of our informants in Moscow have gone dark.” Now, I get that the sources in that story had to be high level.

Sure.

Of course they were, but how do you confirm that story? Think about it as a journalist. If you get a call, it doesn’t matter to me if the source is the head of the CIA.

It’s not like you can go find those intelligence sources and confirm with them.

Right? I mean, can you look at the string of cables that have suddenly ceased? You can’t, right? I even called the paper and asked about that. I said, “What’s the deal with this?”

Taibbi noted a time when The New York Times fell into a similar trap in reporting unverified intelligence claims: FROM THE EDITORS; The Times and Iraq.

While talk of Russia rigging our elections has calmed down going into the midterms, this might also be a temporary break, with politicians on both sides likely to be searching for people to blame for losses after the results are in. However, if there really should be a threat of election rigging, it is notable that, despite all the hysteria since 2016, The New York Times is right on one thing. Very little has been done to change how our elections are held and to deal with the risks in our electronic voting systems. If politicians (along with journalists who called 2016 incorrectly) really took the risk of election hacking seriously, as opposed to a convenient excuse for why Hillary Clinton could not beat Donald Trump, we might expect a strong movement towards paper ballots and more secure voting systems.

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