The modern liberal creed includes two seemingly conflicting tenets. On the one hand, even the most easily surmountable obstacles placed before voters—having to register with your state prior to an election or learn where your local polling place is, for example—represent a betrayal of America’s commitment to its own values. On the other hand, Americans are so staggeringly stupid that even the most mind-numbingly asinine foreign propaganda can convince a critical mass of voters to drive a stake through the heart of American democracy.
At least that’s the impression observers are likely to walk away with after surveying a House intelligence panel’s review of Russia’s nefarious 2016-themed advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook. The ads and organic content traced back to Russian-linked accounts are downright laughable.
Among the selections the House panel provided for observers were items like an image that featured Jesus and Satan arm wrestling, advising all good-hearted souls to “click ‘like’ to help Jesus win.” There was a Russian-backed Texas secessionist movement that organized rallies for independence to escape the clutches of “Killery Rotten Clinton.” And we can’t forget “Buff Bernie”—a muscle-bound caricature of Bernie Sanders striking a Mr. World pose in front of the White House with a caption reminding Americans not to take politics “too seriously.”
There were modestly more divisive entries, including items that stoked division both for and against the Black Lives Matter movement. There were also marginally more serious efforts to influence the vote. One ad featured the Clinton-backing actor and comedian Aziz Ansari holding up a Photoshopped sign advising social-media users to “vote” on Election Day by tweeting a particular hashtag.
In sum, the reaction from lawmakers to these images—which ranged from silly and harmless to theatrical and cloying—has been wildly disproportionate to their likely influence.
Democratic Senator Mark Warner was among those wringing his hands over an unpaid but relatively popular image of Hillary Clinton as Satan preparing to spar with a bare-chested Jesus Christ. “It is an unpaid ‘organic’ post shared after Russia used ads to grow a 217k person following for the ‘Army of Jesus,’” Warner fretted. Honestly, given the hilarity of the content this organization produced, it deserved more followers.
The return on investment that Russian linked sources have enjoyed from their modest speculation in information warfare on social media is absurd. According to Facebook, Russian-linked ads (not including “organic” content) amounted to $100,000 in revenue. Facebook made $28 billion in 2016; $100,000 is barely a blip on the radar screen.
Democrats have taken to touting the fact that these ads generated 126 million impressions, but that figure means nothing by itself. Facebook’s General Counsel Colin Stretch told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on Tuesday that Russian-linked material hosted on Facebook around the 2016 election cycle constituted “approximately 0.004 percent of the content in news feeds.” Any rational perspective would lead a neutral observer to conclude that it is highly unlikely Russian activity on platforms like Facebook was robust enough to influence the election.
Rational perspective be damned, contend Democrats who are committed to blaming the Democratic Party’s 2016 loss on anyone other than themselves. “What we’re talking about is a cataclysmic change,” Senator Dianne Feinstein declared on Wednesday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing focused on Russian activities on social media. “What we’re talking about is the beginning of cyber warfare.”
“What we’re talking about is a major foreign power with the sophistication and ability to involve themselves in a presidential election and sow conflict and discontent all over this country,” she continued. Feinstein’s right; cyber warfare is nothing to sneeze at. It’s a wonder, then, that the Obama administration was doing so much sneezing prior to 2016.
As early as 2014, the Obama administration’s National Security Council was privy to reports indicating that “Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments and militaries in all of these places” in preparation for a disinformation offensive. The administration insists it took all relevant precautions, but even Democrats like Warner have confessed that the Obama White House “choked” when it came to responding to Russian interference in 2016.
Obama’s former undersecretary for defense policy at the Pentagon, Michèle Flournoy, wrote recently that Russian intervention on social media represents a national security threat and the Trump administration should take it more seriously ahead of 2018. “[T]he U.S. intelligence community made clear Moscow’s objectives to discredit democracy by sowing doubt and dissent in the U.S. electorate,” she wrote. Surely, it doesn’t help ease tensions when an idiotic doodle featuring Hillary Clinton battling Jesus shows up on the floors of Congress and federal lawmakers agonize over the potency of the image. It’s Congress, not Moscow, that is providing these divisive messages with exposure and power that money can’t buy.
On Thursday, Donald Trump’s Department of Justice had sufficient evidence to charge at last six members of the Russian government for their involvement in hacking the Democratic National Committee. For a president who continues to grope for ways in which to exculpate the Russian government, that’s an awkward revelation. It demonstrates, though, the extent to which the president cannot evade inconvenient facts about Russia’s intervention in the 2016 election. Democrats would be wise to direct their righteous ire toward preventing foreign cyber warfare rather than obsessing over cyber mischief.