Why The Russia On Facebook Narrative Is Overblown

Why The Russia On Facebook Narrative Is Overblown

When do the people peddling conspiracies about Donald Trump and Russia lose all credibility?
Willis L. Krumholz
By

After about a year of innuendo-peddling, the mainstream media thought it finally found a shred of evidence that pointed to President Trump colluding with Russia. Several weeks ago, Facebook announced it discovered $100,000 to $150,000 worth of Russian-linked advertising on the social networking site.

That prompted special counsel Robert Mueller to have a “red hot” focus on Russian activity on social media, according to anonymous officials. The hope was that Mueller would find a link between alleged Russian activity on Facebook and the Trump campaign’s data operation. Alas, the search for the missing link of Trump-Russia collusion will have to move on.

Here’s the Backstory to This Weird Claim

Facebook started looking for Russian activity on its website in June 2016. According to the Washington Post, President Obama even met with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg before Trump’s inauguration, just to make sure Zuckerberg took “fake news” on Facebook seriously.

After the election, Facebook examined accounts that had been created during the campaign, but still couldn’t find any clear Russian activity. As told by the Post, a “review by the company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government.” As recent as July 20 of this year, Facebook told CNN: “we have seen no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election.”

In early August this changed, when Facebook finally uncovered 3,000 ads tied to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” posted between 2015 and 2017. “There is evidence that some of the accounts are linked to a troll farm in St. Petersburg, referred to as the Internet Research Agency, though we have no way to independently confirm,” said a Facebook official.

But The Connection Is Overblown

Cue the latest round of media innuendo. Instead of talking about the veracity of Facebook’s claims, commentators immediately began to speculate about whether all this could lead to the president. Specifically, it was thought that data from alleged Russian activity on Facebook could be tied to the Trump campaign’s data operation, which was spearheaded in part by the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

The Washington Post and other outlets, when reporting on the Facebook story, included tidbits referencing the cyber threat-group APT28, which might be linked to Russian military intelligence, which might be linked to alleged hacker Guccifer 2.0, who might have hacked the Democratic National Committee. It went unmentioned that nothing actually ties the Facebook story to Guccifer 2.0 or Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU. Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider called Mueller’s decision to obtain a search warrant for records of inauthentic Facebook accounts “bad news for ‘deniers’ of Russia’s election interference.”

The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), said this “opens a whole new arena,” and was “just the tip of the iceberg.” The head Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff (D-CA), told MSNBC that he wanted to see how sophisticated the ads were, in terms of targeting and content, to see if they could be tied to the Trump campaign.

Russia Swung Idaho to President Trump?

Schiff got his wish this week, when new leaks from anonymous officials revealed the content and tenor of Russia’s alleged Facebook activity. The Washington Post reported that the 3,000 ads Facebook was preparing to turn over to Congress promoted causes including Black Lives Matter, gun rights, and pro-abortion views, or highlighted Hillary Clinton’s support among Muslim women.

This echoed a September 6 statement by Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, who said the vast majority of the $100,000 worth of ads run by the 470 pages and accounts did not reference the election, voting, or a particular candidate. “Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum – touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” said Stamos.

The spin is that the lack of overt support for Trump shows the Russian interference operation’s sophistication. In the words of Schiff, who has not actually seen the ads yet, “The American people should see a representative sample of these ads to see how cynical the Russians were using these ads to sow division within our society.”

The ads “were designed around hitting these fracture points, so they could see how they resonate and assess their effectiveness,” said Clinton Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a former FBI agent who also hadn’t seen the ads.

Even more nefarious on the part of Russia, the Russian Facebook campaign allegedly promoted anti-immigrant rallies in both Idaho and Texas. On the page for the Idaho rally, only 48 people clicked that they were interested in the event, while only four said that they attended.

In an even bigger blow to the Russia-on-Facebook narrative, WIRED is reporting that the majority of the ads in question ran in 2015. Maybe Mueller and the Washington Post don’t know it yet, but there was no presidential election that year. In fact, back in 2015, Trump had as good a chance as Sarah Palin at being the Republican nominee.

When Do These People Lose Credibility?

Let the ridiculousness of all this sink in. Sitting U.S. members of Congress are talking about impeaching the president of the United States based on $100,000 of Facebook advertising that mostly occurred in 2015. The Facebook advertising doesn’t even mention the president by name, and much of it is ostensibly pro-Democrat, but this is spun as further proof of Russian sabotage.

Further, the mainstream media and these elected officials are entertaining the possibility that Kushner basically committed treason over a mere $100,000 in ad spending, when the Trump campaign spent an estimated $90 million on digital advertising.

Meanwhile, Mueller, the man tasked with investigating “Russian election interference,” through leaks from his team now says he’s got a laser focus on Russian activity on social media. The D.C. establishment, including many Republicans, totally trust this man to be fair and honest, and we are supposed to trust him too. Is this real life, or is this the Marx Brothers?

The insinuation in all this, especially coming from the Democrats and the Clinton people in particular, is that the American people are dumb: You hayseeds in flyover country are so stupid that you were about to vote the right way, but saw a Russian ad and changed your mind. Already, Democrat senators Warner and Amy Klobuchar have introduced legislation to regulate political speech on social media. But the American people are not dumb. It is the job of the people, not Facebook or the government, to decide what is true.

Is this real life, or is this the Marx Brothers?

That’s why all 3,000 ads should be made available to the American people, so we can make our own decision about how much Russia used Facebook to interfere with the 2016 election. Many will remember that during the election, stories emerged of accounts spreading false information, such as that the pope had endorsed Trump. Yet instead of being orchestrated by Russia, the culprits turned out to be “mostly teenage hoaxsters” from Macedonia, attempting to generate web traffic and the accompanying Google ad revenue. How sure is Facebook that this $100,000 really links to Russia, and was an attempt to influence a presidential election?

In general, more evidence still needs to be provided to support claims of widespread Russian election interference at all. And Mueller investigating social media is especially preposterous. What should be investigated is the intelligence agencies, who have flagrantly interfered in our politics and policy-making.

Take This Search Right to Its Origins

Anonymous leaks and the abuse of a law that allows surveillance of foreigners led to the firing of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, who wanted to reform the intelligence bureaucracies. Similar leaks also led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from all things Russia-related, which eventually led to Mueller’s appointment by the acting attorney general for all things Russia-related, Rod Rosenstein.

FBI officials with knowledge of the matter are not being allowed to testify by the FBI and the Justice Department.

Intelligence agencies spied on Paul Manafort and other Trump campaign aides, and it is likely that the warrant to do so was granted due to a debunked dossier chock full of conspiracy theories, by a secret court that almost never says no to our intelligence agencies. The dossier was paid for by Fusion GPS, a private opposition firm paid by the Clinton campaign. It is even likely that the president himself was included in this surveillance, both before and after the election, probably as part of the surveillance of his associates.

It is also possible that the FBI sought to pay the former British spook who compiled the opposition research dossier. So the spook could have been paid by both the FBI and Fusion GPS. We do know that the British spook wrote the dossier by paying Russian agents for unverified “information.” Senators Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would like to ask the FBI about these things, but FBI officials with knowledge of the matter are not being allowed to testify by the FBI and the Justice Department.

If one questions our intelligence agencies, or the Trump-Russia narrative, he runs the risk of being labeled a conspiracy theorist. Yet for about a year now, the DC establishment, the Democratic Party, and the media have constantly peddled in conspiracy theories about the president, without consequence. It’s time for these people to lose all credibility.

Meanwhile, we can’t assume Mueller will look into these abuses of power by our intelligence agencies, or provide more evidence to the public that Russia massively interfered in our election. Here, Congress needs to assert its authority over our intelligence agencies, and it should require more evidence to back up the claims of Russian election interference. The future of our republic might depend on it.

Willis L. Krumholz is a fellow at Defense Priorities. He holds a JD and MBA degree from the University of St. Thomas, and works in the financial services industry. The views expressed are those of the author only.

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