As the scandal of the Hillary Clinton and Democratic National Committee-funded dossier only begins to blow up, those invested in the Donald Trump and Russia collusion narrative are growing desperate. The latest shiny object the media picked up is Russia’s supposed presence on social media during the 2016 election.
“We can do a better job imposing costs on Vladimir Putin and Russia to make Putin think twice about continuing to do this. So there are many things we can do about this. We're just not doing them.” — @MichaelJMorell on Russia's election interference pic.twitter.com/h96fHzDmVN
— CBS This Morning ❄️ (@CBSThisMorning) December 27, 2017
Members of the “#resistance” were quick to condemn this “attack” on American democracy, along with Republicans who refuse to regulate political speech on social media.
This is the worst kind of attack: barely visible, extremely hard to fight off, insidious in its capacity to cripple our key institutions, profound in its ability to erode the people’s trust in democracy. That Trump and his GOP allies are doing nothing about it is inexcusable. https://t.co/G1pUtx6p8w
— Laurence Tribe (@tribelaw) December 28, 2017
Enter Michael Isikoff, Yahoo News’ intrepid reporter who loves taking stories from Fusion GPS, the DNC-funded firm that created the dossier. Isikoff was excited to report that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate “Russian election interference,” has focused his sleuthing on whether the Trump campaign had anything to do with Russia’s activity on social media: “In just the last few weeks, his prosecutors have begun questioning Republican National Committee staffers about the party digital operation that worked with the Trump campaign to target voters in key swing states. They are seeking to determine if the joint effort was related to the activities of Russian trolls and bots aimed at influencing the American electorate, according to two of the sources.”
The story Isikoff advances here is that since Russia’s social media campaign was sophisticated and surely affected the election’s outcome, it is likely that Russia’s social-media trolls received marching orders from the Trump campaign. Not really.
There’s No Evidence a ‘Sophisticated’ Effort Existed
Right away, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump committed a random act of journalism and correctly pointed out that Mueller’s entire premise (if Isikoff’s reporting is correct) is bonkers: “All of that, though, requires setting aside what we actually know about the Russian activity on Facebook and Twitter: It was often modest, heavily dissociated from the campaign itself and minute in the context of election social media efforts.”
Bump concludes: “As it stands, the public evidence doesn’t support the idea that the Russians executed a savvy electoral strategy on social media to ensure Trump’s victory. In fact, it seems less the case that they did so now than seemed might be possible back in July,” when the narrative of Russian activity on social media first came out.
So not only is there no evidence yet that Trump’s social media team colluded with a sophisticated Russian effort, there is no evidence yet that there was a sophisticated Russian effort in the first place. But Bump’s article misses another huge point. At the beginning of his article, Bump refers to the “popular sense” that Trump team members aided the Russians in a social media campaign. The article studiously avoids discussing where that “popular sense” came from: It came directly from Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI).
Intel-Committee Democrats Started This False Narrative
It began with what was obviously a leak from HPSCI Democrats to CNN’s Manu Raju in early October, shortly after the committee received the Facebook ads. Facebook scraped these ads together while Democrats just happened to be offering legislation that would regulate political speech on the platform. Facebook had previously claimed (correctly) that there was no substantial Russian activity on its social network.
CNN’s spin went like this: Because the Russian social media campaign was “highly sophisticated,” targeting swing states like Michigan and Wisconsin, collusion was a likely explanation. How else, apart from the Trump campaign, could the Russians have such a thorough understanding of American voting?
The spin was utterly bogus. Democrats on the intelligence committee cherry-picked a few Michigan and Wisconsin-focused ads and falsely presented them as representative of the entire batch. A few days later, the Washington Examiner’s Byron York wrote a corrective article that utterly shot holes in CNN’s conspiracy theories.
Using information from Facebook and government officials, reported by York and Bump, we now know that:
- The 3,000 ads in question were not sophisticated whatsoever. They were mostly written in broken English, and most of the ad-views occurred after the election (while nobody saw 25 percent of the rest). Ten million people saw the ads, but only about 5 million saw the ads before the election, and most of these views occurred in 2015.
- The vast majority of the ads didn’t mention voting, or any specific politician or political party. They mostly covered divisive cultural issues, such as immigration or the Black Lives Matter group.
- Only about a quarter of the ads were geographically targeted (relatively easy to do on Facebook’s ad service), and more targeted ads ran in 2015 than in 2016. The targeted ads were all over the map, with many running in non-battleground states. A statement from Sen. Richard Burr’s office (R-NC) notes that five times more ads were targeted at Maryland than Wisconsin (262 to 55), and that “35 of the 55 ads targeted at Wisconsin ran prior to the Wisconsin primary – before there was an identified Republican candidate…” Not one of those 55 Wisconsin ads mentioned Trump by name.
- The three most heavily targeted states were Maryland, Missouri, and New York, all relatively safe wins for one political party. Washington DC, whose electoral votes always go Democrat in recent years, received more ads than did Pennsylvania, a politically contested state.
- Of the ads that more than one person saw, only about a dozen targeted the contested states of Michigan and Wisconsin, and most of these ads ran in 2015. Of the ads that were seen, the majority were seen by fewer than 1,000 people. Most of the Michigan and Wisconsin ads were less than $10 buys.
- The total ad-spend for Wisconsin was $1,979, and all but $54 was spent before the primary in early 2016. The ad-spend in Michigan was $823. In Pennsylvania it was $300. More than five times the money spent on these states was spent in California.
Moreover, the Russian ads Facebook turned over contained “clickbait-type ads that had nothing to do with politics,” according to a government official familiar with the ads. This raises the question as to whether all of these ads were even run by the Russian government, or by Russians trying to make money on the Internet.
Never Let Facts Ruin a Good Story
But Democrats weren’t about to let facts get in the way of advancing their collusion narrative. The House Intelligence Committee released their cherry-picked examples of “Russian Facebook ads” in November.
Here’s Bump’s assessment of the Democrat’s chosen ads: “Of the 30 ads shared by the Democrats, six, viewed 1.2 million times in total, ran in 2015. Only seven ran in the last month of the campaign, totaling about 340,000 views. The ads targeted none of the four closest states in the election — New Hampshire, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — specifically; most were national ad buys. States that were targeted specifically included Texas and New York, neither of which was considered a swing state.”
The media didn’t let facts get in the way of fueling the collusion narrative, either. After receiving their marching orders from CNN, the media swung into action: This includes Vanity Fair, Natasha Bertrand at Business Insider, The Daily Mail, Fortune, The Hill, Reuters, and CNBC. Far-left sites like the Daily Kos, Vox, Salon, and Talking Points Memo joined the fray to falsely characterize all the ads as targeting swing states right before the election, when very few targeted swing states, let alone targeted these states in the run-up to the election.
The three major networks’ nightly news broadcasts also covered the narrative extensively, and CNN and MSNBC gave it wall-to-wall coverage. With this backdrop, HPSCI Democrats launched an all-out messaging and spin campaign based on the idea that the Russian activity on social media was sophisticated, and therefore indicative of collusion. Here are just a few examples:
- HPSCI ranking member Adam Schiff (D-CA) on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” (at 3:40)
- Schiff talking to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer (at 2:51)
- HPSCI member Eric Swalwell (D-CA) on MSNBC (at 1:59)
- HPSCI member Jackie Speier (D-CA) talking to CNN’s Chris Cuomo. After being set up by Cuomo, she outright says, “How did Russia gain that sophistication? They gained that sophistication with help.” (at 2:08)
- Schiff’s opening statement at the November 1 HPSCI social media hearing (nearly the whole statement is about Trump collusion with Russia): “Apart from publishing stolen emails, the Russians also used social media to assist the Trump Campaign. Whether the Russians and Trump coordinated these efforts, we do not yet know, but it is true that the Russians mounted what could be described as an independent expenditure campaign on Trump’s behalf.”
- Another Schiff statement, this time to ABC News: “These ads are significant to our investigation as they help demonstrate how Russia employed sophisticated measures to push disinformation and propaganda to millions of Americans online during the election, in order to sow discord and chaos, and divide us from one another.”
The Anatomy of a Fake News Story
One would think the efforts to advance this narrative would die down in the face of highly contradictory and easily discoverable facts that have been publicly available for months. Yet even though Bump and the Washington Post have finally just caught up to where York was on October 5, the rest of the media are continuing to advance this totally disproven narrative.
For example, when reporting this week that House Russia investigators would soon interview former White House advisor Steve Bannon, CNN reported one of the “lingering questions” is whether Russia’s social media operation received help from Trump. Because of this, most people on the street still believe this fake-news story. Who was that person from history who said if you repeat a lie enough, people will start to believe it?
The genesis of this corrupted narrative is a great example of how Democrats are trying to make collusion materialize out of absolutely nothing, except a compliant press corps. The Democrats spread a false story, the media picks it up without asking questions, and only months later does a little Washington Post article grudgingly acknowledge that the whole thing is probably bunk. But the damage is done.
How do false narratives like this get stopped the next time around? Republicans need to play hardball. Senate Intelligence Chairman Burr (R-NC) has done good work to discredit the idea that the Russian ads affected the election, but is still on the record worrying about Russian operations on social media. He went after America’s social media companies during a hearing, telling them: “This is about national security … [and a] deliberate and multifaceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”
Yes, we shouldn’t want Russia messing with American elections, even on social media, but given what we know about the seriousness of the “interference” in 2016, why not vocally push back? Why not challenge the Democrats’ entire premise?
The evidence available to us today says that Russia’s activities on Facebook—if they even were sponsored by the Russian government—were no big deal. Twitter identified around 2,700 bot accounts possibly related to Russia. But if you realize how many bot accounts are on Twitter, let alone real accounts, this is just a drop in the bucket. Russians spent $46,000 on Facebook ads that ran before the election (of the reported $100,000). This compares to the Trump and Clinton campaigns’ combined $81 million spent on Facebook ads.
If all it takes is $46,000 to influence an election, the Lion’s Club in my hometown of 10,000 people could “interfere” next time around. Even the idea that Middle America could be influenced by Russian disinformation is downright insulting. Flyover country is apparently much smarter than the Obama administration’s top brass at the FBI, the only group in America that really was duped by Russian misinformation.
Such is the hysteria of the day. Yet anonymous leaks to the media (which may or may not be true) say Mueller has a “red-hot” focus on Russian activity on social media. If this is true, are we really supposed to take Mueller seriously? Many establishment Republicans, at least, still take Mueller seriously.
The truth is that the media and Democrats will always control the narrative unless Republicans fight back. That’s one of the takeaways of the Trump phenomenon that too many Republicans still fail to grasp. The tools needed to destroy the Democrats’ narrative are right here, screaming at Republicans. All they need to do is turn them into talking points, get on the same page, and hit the airwaves. Treat the press as an appendage of the Democratic Party. After all, that’s what they are.