All posts in “russia”

Facebook’s Brexit probe unearths three Russian-bought “immigration” ads

Facebook has provided more details about the extent of Russian digital interference related to the UK’s Brexit vote last year.

Last month the social media giant confirmed that Russian agents had used its platform to try to interfere in the UK’s referendum on EU membership — but said it had not found “significant coordination of ad buys or political misinformation targeting the Brexit vote”.

Today’s findings apparently bear out that conclusion, with Facebook claiming it’s unearthed just three ads and less than $1 spent.

The Brexit related Russian-backed ads ran for four days in May, ahead of the UK’s June referendum vote, and apparently garnered around 200 views on Facebook.

It says the ads targeted both UK and US audiences — and “concerned immigration”, rather than being explicitly about the UK’s EU referendum vote.

Which appears to be in line with the strategy Kremlin agents have deployed in the US, where Russian-bought ads have targeted all sorts of socially divisive issues in an apparent attempt to drive different groups and communities further apart.

The Brexit-related ads were paid for by the same Russian-backed 470 accounts that it previously revealed spent ~$100,000, between June 2016 and May 2017, to run more than 3,000 ads targeting US users.

And Facebook linked these accounts to Russia as a consequence of its investigation into Kremlin interference in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election.

For the Brexit audit, it’s worth noting that Facebook appears to have only looked at identified Internet Research Agency (IRA) pages or account profiles — IRA being the previously unmasked Russian troll-farm — so there could be scope for other Russian-backed accounts to have bought ads intending to meddle with Brexit without Facebook realizing it. (Although given the levels of ad buys by IRA accounts targeting US Facebook users it’s perhaps unlikely there’s a second layer to the Russian political dis-ops campaign. Albeit still possible.)

It also does not look like Facebook has attempted to measure and quantify non-paid Brexit-related disinformation posts by Russian-backed accounts — since it’s only talking in terms of “funded advertisements”. We’ve asked and will update this post with any response.

Update: TechCrunch understands that since the scope of the Electoral Commission enquiry relates to activity funded by Russia, Facebook has — thus far — limited its Brexit scrutiny to ad buys. (Thereby making its scrutiny pretty limited.)

We’ve also asked Facebook to share the three Russian-bought “immigration” ads, and to confirm whether they were anti-immigration in sentiment.

So far the company has provided us with the following extract from a letter to the Electoral Commission as commentary on its findings:

We strongly support the Commission’s efforts to regulate and enforce political campaign finance rules in the United Kingdom, and we take the Commission’s request very seriously.

Further to your request, we have examined whether any of the identified Internet Research Agency (IRA) pages or account profiles funded advertisements to audiences in the United Kingdom during the regulated period for the EU Referendum. We have determined that these accounts associated with the IRA spent a small amount of money ($0.97) on advertisements that delivered to UK audiences during that time. This amount resulted in three advertisements (each of which were also targeted to US audiences and concerned immigration, not the EU referendum) delivering approximately 200 impressions to UK viewers over four days in May 2016.

An Electoral Commission spokesperson we contacted for a response emphasized that its discussions with social media companies are at a very early stage.

The spokesperson also confirmed that Google and Twitter have both also provided information in response to its request they do so, to feed its ongoing enquiry into whether the use of digital ads and bots on social media might break existing political campaigning rules.

In a statement, the spokesperson added: “Facebook, Google and Twitter have responded to us. We welcome their cooperation. There is further work to be done with these companies in response to our request for details of campaign activity on their platforms funded from outside the UK. Following those discussions we will say more about our conclusions.”

At the time of writing Twitter and Google had not responded to a request for details of the information they have passed to the Electoral Commission — which late last month Twitter said it would be providing “in the coming weeks”.

recent academic study of tweet data — looking at how political information diffused on Twitter’s platform specifically around the Brexit vote and the US election — identified more than 156,000 Russian accounts which mentioned #Brexit.

The study also found Russian accounts posted almost 45,000 messages pertaining to the EU referendum in the 48 hours around the vote.

Update: A Google spokesperson has now provided the following response — claiming not to have found any evidence of Russian disinformation ops. “We took a thorough look at our systems and found no evidence of this activity on our platform,” they told us.

Social media’s still unaudited role in political campaigning looks set to remain in the domestic spotlight for the foreseeable future — as the Commission continues to investigate.

Though it remains to be seen whether the body will recommend amending UK law to better regulate political activity on digital platforms.

The UK’s Prime Minister waded into the disinformation debate herself last month by publicly accusing the Russian government of seeking to “weaponize information” by planting fake stories and photoshopped images to try to sow discord in the West.

And the so-far disclosed extent of Russian divisive content targeting the US electorate — which in October Facebook admitted could have reached as many as 126 million people — should give politicians in any democracy plenty of pause for thought about major tech platforms.

Featured Image: Evgeny Gromov/Getty Images

This was the year we turned on social media

With each passing day comes yet another reason to question the notion that the long arc of the universe bends toward justice. However, this year, in particular, has made it resoundingly clear that — regardless of the direction of that arc — the process by which it bends manifests with stuttering jolts and fits. Things seem one way to many people, until, for whatever reason, all of the sudden everyone realizes they’re not. 

It is a similar reckoning that has befallen the do-no-wrong darling of the tech industry: social media. Long heralded by its profits as a digital panacea for our fractured world, services like Facebook and Twitter have instead come to both represent and fuel our darker natures. 

And, over the course of 2017, we’ve finally started to realize it. 

While for many Americans, naming “complicit” the word of the year was a sadly fitting choice, those in Silicon Valley have found themselves uttering another term likewise befitting a collective fall from grace: disbelief. Disbelief that their once loved platforms have, like a late-night Cinderella, transformed from the belle of the ball to unwanted stepchild. Disbelief that, from the shiny and seemingly unassailable promise of bringing us together to a pernicious network of disinformation tearing us apart, social media has worked its way into our lives not like a cure but a cancer. It’s rotting us, and the country along with it, from the inside out. 

But it’s not like no one warned them. People did. It’s just that, sadly, the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world were too busy staging photo ops with their data serfs to stop and listen to the concerns. 

The world took notice. 

Trump, the Russians, and ‘fake news’

Perhaps the single most headline-grabbing truth of social media to be revealed over the course of 2017 was just how much of a role it played in electing Donald Trump. Initially brushed off as a “pretty crazy idea,” the fact that platforms like Facebook distributed misinformation on a massive scale in the lead up to and following the 2016 presidential election is now widely accepted. And while the troubling application of the service to spread so-called “fake news” was not limited to the U.S., it was there that it first so prominently reared its multi-pronged head. 

That a Russian troll farm was easily able to weaponize social media to its ends was not lost on Americans, or many of their elected officials, and calls for regulation moved into the mainstream. Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana went so far as to tell Facebook’s general counsel that “your power scares me.” 

Russian troll farm pages on Facebook.

Russian troll farm pages on Facebook.


That power, of course, is not limited to Facebook. Twitter, too, struggled and continues to struggle with the actors using its platform in ways that would likely upset the average Tom, Dick, or Harry. Just recently the company identified 36,000 bots and 2,752 accounts reportedly controlled by individuals tied to the Russian government which operated in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. At least one of these accounts, @Jenn_Abrams, was apparently so convincing that it was published in Mashable, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, CNN, and The New York Times. 

Instagram, which, of course, is owned by Facebook, didn’t escape this mess unscathed either. Russian-backed ads seemingly designed to influence the 2016 presidential election were also deployed on the service more associated with pug pics than Putin. 

Taken as a whole, this worked to poison an already toxic political discourse, and pushed people even further into their rapidly collapsing reality bubbles. Sadly, it’s not getting better any time soon. 

Racism, sexism, and all the other rot

As unpleasant as it may be to admit, those who maliciously abuse the online services finely tuned by the likes of Facebook and Twitter to monopolize our attention aren’t always directed by foreign governments looking to sow discord. Rather, a lot of the garbage found these days on social media originates much closer to home. 

Surprising exactly no one, it turns out the United States specifically, and the world in general, is full of racist and misogynistic assholes. And, well, they have thrived on social media. Putting aside platforms like Gab, which seem explicitly designed to provide a platform for hate speech, it’s getting harder and harder to dip a toe into the online pool without acquiring some sort of associated stink. 

Twitter, in particular, has morphed into such a teeming mass of harassment that the company was forced to release a roadmap laying out the steps it plans to take to curb abuse. And sure, better reporting mechanisms are a good thing, but that’s like offering an improved bandaid while the patient bleeds out. 

You all still like me, right? Right?!

You all still like me, right? Right?!

Image: Hindustan Times/Getty Images

But it’s not just the racists souring social media for the rest of us — at least one company has demonstrated itself as, at times, complicit (there’s that word again) in the poisoning of its well. Facebook, for example, positioned itself to directly profit off discrimination. In 2016, a ProPublica investigation revealed that the advertising giant was allowing advertisers to exclude users based on race. Don’t want to show housing ads to African Americans? Facebook had you covered. The company promised to change the system to safeguard from abuse in February, but the fixes didn’t work. Facebook temporarily stopped offering the feature in November after it was called out yet again.

That not bad enough? Facebook also allowed advertisers to pay for ads targeting groups like “Jew haters” and people who were “interested in” shockingly repugnant statements like “Hitler did nothing wrong.” When confronted with this, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg understandably denounced it, but by that point the algorithmically driven racism had already left the ad-sales barn. 

This has all been roundly condemned, and the social media giants of the word promise to do better, but there’s only so many times you can tell someone “that’s not who I really am” before they start to see through the nicely packaged facade. And, over the course of 2017, Americans specifically, and the world in general, have started to do just that. 

Your privacy and life as a lab rat

While the notions of privacy and social media seem inherently at odds, there are a few basic lines that people don’t want crossed. Social media companies, for their part, seem to only pay lip service to the few lines they’re even willing to acknowledge exist. 

Facebook in particular isn’t content with just knowing what you do while using one of its many properties, and has long collected information about you while you browse the open web. This is all in service of building more complete profiles on its users in order to better target them with ads. 

When those ads are for random products they’re perhaps an easier pill to swallow. However, when they’re used to malevolently lure you and your political opponents to a fake protest or to encourage race-based violence? Well, that’s another situation all together.  

Unsurprisingly, even those that still use the service are starting to revolt. Some are convinced that Facebook uses the microphones on their computers and phones to listen in on their conversations to better serve them ads (Facebook denies this), and have taken active and elaborate steps to fight back. Others have started employing online tools in an attempt to peel back the company’s curtain and see just how much it knows about them. Surprise, it’s a lot

And what companies like Facebook do with this information is extremely upsetting. No one likes to think they are being experimented on, and yet your friendly Menlo Park engineers have done just that. It was revealed in 2014 that the company ran a study to see if it could alter people’s moods by showing them a disproportionate number of uplifting or downer statuses in their news feeds. Basically, someone at Facebook thought it would be interesting to mess with people’s emotional states (for science!) and so the company went ahead and did it. 

Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey shown here totally not hiding Russian trolls in his beard.

Twitter cofounder Jack Dorsey shown here totally not hiding Russian trolls in his beard.

Image: CNBC/getty

This playing of god has done nothing to endear the people of the world to their digital overlords. An early 2017 report from 24/7 Wall St put Facebook as America’s 6th most hated company. What’s more, it was reported in May that the European Union had fined Facebook for allegedly violating user privacy. And Twitter? Well, there’s an entire genre of writing dedicated to bemoaning pretty much every thing the company does

The indictment, however, is broader than just the Facebook and Twitter-specific critiques. A new study suggests that compulsively checking social media during a disaster — a time when, at least theoretically, getting rapid updates could be helpful — can cause psychological distress. This suggests that even if the purveyors of our digital fix were invested in our well being, their main cure would have to be shutting their own doors.  

Kicking the habit ain’t easy

Still, simply knowing something is bad for you — and even disliking it for that — isn’t always enough of a reason to drop it. Addiction is a powerful thing, and the dopamine generated by compulsively checking social media has become this country’s preferred high. 

But even Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, has some regrets. He noted in a November interview that the conscious intention of the company’s founders was to get people essentially hooked. 

“The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom at Instagram … it’s all these people — understood this consciously, and we did it anyway,” he explained. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,” he added. 

So where does this leave us? Despite all the evidence that social media is both bad for us individually and collectively, we show no signs of cutting back. The number of Twitter monthly active users has tapered off to around 330 million, and Facebook’s monthly user base continues to grow — hitting 2 billion this year. Instagram, meanwhile, has reached 800 million MAUs and shows no signs of stopping its growth.

If anything, these numbers demonstrate one of the wonderfully confusing things about being human — that we can hold something dear while simultaneously despising it. There is some hope, however. If 2017 was the year we realized our addiction was killing us and turned against social media as a result, perhaps 2018 will be the year we finally kick it.  

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James Comey throws shade at Flynn and Trump with first Instagram post

Former FBI Director James Comey smiling at the thought of justice.
Former FBI Director James Comey smiling at the thought of justice.

Image: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

As hellfire prepares to rain down on the White House, former FBI Director James Comey is chillin’, you know, just getting his Instagram on.

After news broke that Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russia, Comey responded by posting his first Instagram and trolling the men with a biblical verse about justice.

“‘But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ Amos 5:24,” Comey captioned a photo of Great Falls Park in Virginia, one which he’s shared on social media before.

In a previous tweet Comey called Amos 5:24 his “favorite scripture verse,” and said it reminds him of this image of the Great Falls. 

Flynn resigned back in February following reports that he had lied about communication with Russia prior to Trump taking office. Then, Comey was fired by Trump in May, which raised a few red flags seeing as the FBI was investigating potential ties between Trump’s administration and Russian government officials. 

Comey explained in a written memo that the day after Flynn resigned, Trump asked him to let any investigation surrounding Flynn to go, and later testified about his interactions with Trump to the Senate Intelligence Committee in June.

After Comey’s wild White House ride it’s pretty clear to see how Friday’s news could inspire him to sub-Instagram for joy about justice.

His Instagram handle, a_higher_loyalty, references the title of his upcoming book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership” that’s expected to be released in Spring 2018.

Image: screengrab//instagram

It’s been a big year for Comey and social media, after the man recently revealed he is the owner of a highly speculated secret Twitter account where he used to go by the name Reinhold Niebuhr.

This is just the start of Comey’s Instagram presence — at the time of writing this article he only had a mere 10,000 followers, compared to his 442,000 Twitter followers — but maybe one day his trolling will reach Pete Souza levels.

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Facebook and Twitter to provide Brexit disinformation reports soon

A UK parliamentary committee that’s investing fake news has been told by Facebook and Twitter they will provide information relating to Russian interference during the UK’s 2016 Brexit referendum vote in the coming weeks.

With election disinformation being publicly interrogated in the US, questions have increasingly been asked in the UK about whether foreign government agents also sought to use social channels to drive Brexit propaganda and sway voters.

Last month Damian Collins, the chair of the digital, culture, media and sport committee, wrote to Facebook and Twitter asking them to look into whether Russian-backed accounts had been used to try to influence voters in the June 2016 in/out EU referendum.

The Guardian reports that Collins has also asked senior representatives from the two companies to give evidence on the reach of fake news at the British embassy in Washington in February.

Earlier this month, the UK prime minister cranked up the political pressure by publicly accused the Russian government of seeking to “weaponize information” by planting fake stories and photoshopped images to try to meddle in elections and sow discord in the West.

In a letter sent to Collins on Friday, Twitter confirmed it would be divulging its own findings soon, writing: “We are currently undertaking investigations into these questions and intend to share our findings in the coming weeks.”

Also responding to the committee last week, Facebook noted it had been contacted by the UK’s Electoral Commission about the issue of possible Russian interference in the referendum, as part of enquiries it’s making into whether the use of digital ads and bots on social media broke existing political campaigning rules.

“We are now considering how we can best respond to the Electoral Commission’s request for information and expect to respond to them by the second week of December. Given that your letter is about the same issue, we will share our response to the Electoral Commission with you,” Facebook writes.

We understand that Google has also been asked by the Electoral Commission to provide it with information pertaining to this probe.

Meanwhile, the UK’s data protection watchdog is conducting a parallel investigation into what it describes as “the data-protection risks arising from the use of data analytics, including for political purposes”.

Where Brexit is concerned, it’s not yet clear how significant the impact of political disinformation amplified via social media was to the outcome of the vote. But there clearly was a disinformation campaign of sorts.

And one that prefigured what appears to have been an even more major effort by Kremlin agents to deflect voters in the US presidential election, just a few months later.

After downplaying the impact of ‘fake news’ on the election for months, Facebook recently admitted that Russian-backed content could have reached as many as 126 million US users over the key political period.

Earlier this month it also finally admitted to finding some evidence of Brexit disinformation being spread via its platform. Though it claimed it had not found what it dubbed “significant coordination of ad buys or political misinformation targeting the Brexit vote”.

Meanwhile, research conducted by a group of academics using Twitter’s API to look at how political information diffused on the platform around the Brexit vote — including looking at how bots and human users interacted — has suggested that more than 156,000 Russian accounts mentioned #Brexit.

The researchers also found that Russian accounts posted almost 45,000 messages related to the EU referendum in the 48 hours around the vote (i.e. just before and just after).

While another academic study reckoned to have identified 400 fake Twitter accounts being run by Kremlin trolls.

Twitter has claimed that external studies based on tweet data pulled via its API cannot represent the full picture of how information is diffused on its platform because the data stream does not take account of any quality filters it might also be applying, nor any controls individual users can use to shape the tweets they see.

It reiterates this point in its letter to Collins, writing:

… we have found studies of the impact of bots and automation on Twitter necessarily and systematically underrepresent our enforcement actions because these defensive actions are not visible via our APIs, and because they take place shortly after content is created and delivered via our streaming API.

Furthermore, researchers using an API often overlook the substantial in-product features that prioritize the most relevant content. Based on user interests and choices, we limit the visibility of low-quality content using tools such as Quality Filter and Safe Search — both of which are on by default for all of Twitter’s users and active for more than 97% of users.

It also notes that researchers have not always correctly identified bots — flagging media reports which it claims have “recently highlighted how users named as bots in research were real people, reinforcing the risks of limited data being used to attribute activity, particularly in the absence of peer review”.

Although there have also been media reports of the reverse phenomenon: i.e. Twitter users who were passing themselves off as ‘real people’ (frequently Americans), and accruing lots of retweets, yet who have since been unmasked as Kremlin-controlled disinformation accounts. Such as @SouthLoneStar.

Twitter’s letter ends by seeking to play down the political influence of botnets — quoting the conclusion of a City University report that states “we have not found evidence supporting the notion that bots can substantively alter campaign communication”.

But again, that study would presumably have been based on the partial view of information diffusion on its platform that Twitter has otherwise complained does not represent the full picture (i.e. in order to downplay other studies that have suggested bots were successfully spreading Brexit-related political disinformation).

So really, it can’t have it both ways. (See also: Facebook selling ads on its platform while trying to simultaneously claim the notion that fake news can influence voters is “crazy”.)

In its letter to Collins, Twitter does also say it’s “engaged in dialogue with academics and think tanks around the world, including those in the UK, to discuss potential collaboration and to explore where our own efforts can be better shared without jeopardizing their effectiveness or user privacy”.

And at least now we don’t have too much longer to wait for its official assessment of the role Russian agents using its platform played in Brexit.

Albeit, if Twitter provided full and free access to researchers so that the opinion-influencing impact of its platform could be more robustly studied the company probably still wouldn’t like all the conclusions being drawn. But nor would it so easily be able to downplay them.

Featured Image: Erik Tham/Getty Images