People are always pissed off at Facebook. I’m often one of them. Their data machine scares the hell out of me, as it does many Americans, but not because I believe they’re doing anything particularly malicious with my personal information. It scares me because they don’t know what they’re doing with it, or who’s using it, or how. Or why. They don’t know their own strength.
When you think about this for a few seconds, the problem becomes clear: I’m not mad at Facebook; I’m mad at America. I’m mad at capitalism. Okay, I’m a little mad at Facebook—but we all got taken last year, including the U.S. government. More accurately, I’m conflicted, and mad, that there’s no ethical way to regulate free misinformation on these vast platforms that have grown beyond the profit motive to become the very infrastructure of profit.
There’s no better example of this problem than Facebook’s role in the 2016 election.
Last month Facebook reported to Congress that Russian entities bought about $100,000 worth of ads that micro-targeted specific voters in specific parts of the country with pro-Trump stories, fake news, and attacks on the Clinton campaign. They’re not alone: Google, YouTube, (owned by Google) and Instagram (owned by Facebook) also reported ad buys. And to be fair, the public is going after Facebook because it was the first of these platforms to own up, after it conducted a long-running internal investigation. Granted, Facebook probably also felt the most pressure, and critics would say it was “long-running” because they dragged their feet. But there’s no denying they were the first to begin opening up.
The press, by and large, hasn’t yet made a similar effort to expose other ad and news (and misinformation) distribution platforms such as Google and Twitter. We’re in for a rude awakening. In the face of that awakening, we need to be more realistic and responsible about who we blame for attacking America, and not say stupid shit like this:
Because there’s no better example of the effect of Facebook’s role in the 2016 election than Louise Mensch. She’s been roundly discredited and I don’t believe has anywhere near the credibility she once did, but her divisive, dishonest, and often totally batshit misinformation is still somehow taken seriously by hundreds of thousands of people.
Mensch, who, instead of offering hope—along with other self-styled “journalists” on the left and the right—has instead stoked, sometimes willfully, the uncertainties and fears that Russia’s attack stirred in all of us. I can see no other way to classify this as, yes, “fake news.”
And I mean fake. That tweet is not the language of a mistake.
So let’s just knock Mensch down once and for all, shall we?
In this longform exposé, I’m going to do that, but also want to illustrate just how dangerous misinformation is, and how difficult it is, when elements of truth are mixed with misleading or false or incomplete information, to tell the difference between this misinformation and your own patterns of thought. You’ll see the extreme lengths I’ll have to go to in order to do this, especially when the misinformation comes from someone as smart and slick as Mensch. It felt like I ran a marathon.
This is why Russia’s Facebook campaign did so much damage: It gave us Mensch and Cernovich and a raft of acolytes and wannabes clamoring for attention on all sides.
So I’m going to do two things:
1. Show how the Trump campaign could have coordinated an information attack with Russia out in plain sight, using Facebook, with no one knowing.
But in order to get you there, I’m first going to
2. Prove Mensch is and always has been wrong.
Fair warning: This article is fucking long and annoyingly detailed. Please feel free to skip ahead at anytime to the Facebook part (section: “You Hate America”). But there’s something to take away from this, too: I needed to write a 9,000-word article to disprove a 600-word article.
Yes, it’s that bad.
So think of all the work full-time journalists spend disproving all the batshit claims it takes Trump less than a second to fire off, let alone handling the continuous flood of fake news and lies and lies by omission that disinformation specialists write, record, and post all day, every day. Now try to distinguish professionals from freelance writers from citizen journalists from disinformation agents from a dude with a blog or a long Facebook or Reddit post. Or a meme. Now imagine trying to discern in that miasma what’s an intentional lie from what’s factually incorrect from what’s hazy misinformation that’s partly true but partly not, and whether the partly not part is intentional or simply incorrect.
Now square that with the First Amendment.
Now multiply those claims by billions.
That’s what some of us seem to expect from Facebook and Google.
So yes, I’m going to swallow a pill and stand up for Facebook, not because I particularly like them or trust or support them, and definitely not because I think they bear no blame for Trump’s election. They do, and they very likely violated FEC rules, for which they should bear the harshest punishment available. But the truth matters. Even if it’s corporate.
This is so simple and obvious I can’t believe I need to write the sentence, let alone this article: Facebook didn’t conspire with the Russian government to commit espionage against the United States. They didn’t do it willfully, they’re not in Putin’s pocket, they’re not willful agents of Russian influence out to corrode national security, blah blah blah.
Facebook is simply a business, one that built a platform of such a size, complexity, and power that the company itself couldn’t fathom its vulnerabilities and the contradictions. Facebook is a geeky kid in high school P.E., concerned only with himself, basking in the brilliance of his own brain during free time, and he got pantsed.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be alarmed. Facebook was doing the same thing it does to us with ads every day: Exercising capitalism to an irresponsible degree. If anything, that is what should scare you: It was business as usual.
Now, though, the bullshit.
Out of necessity I’m going to rewind the clock to the day before the election. It’ll get super esoteric for a while, but it’s only because I have to lock up my case. To do that I have to go back to the report from which all of Mensch’s subsequent credibility and notoriety derives.
There are enough inconsistencies in Mensch’s claims, which themselves are often dubious, that when combined with her lies about those reports being confirmed, I advocate we throw her report out altogether in favor of a similar, more sober, and more widely corroborated report from a BBC columnist. (Though there are reasons to be skeptical of that report, too.)
You can either take me at my word about Mensch, who reported back in July that the death penalty is being considered for Steve Bannon and “others,” including Rudy Giuliani of all people, and skip ahead to the part on Facebook, which you can find under the friendly header “You Hate America.” Or you can take a ride with me as your tour guide through this murky but mesmerizing misinformation swamp until we come out on the other side.
Louise Mensch, Brexit advocate and conservative former Member of Parliament, rose to renown last November when she published her FISA report in Rupert Murdoch’s Heat Street the day before the Presidential election. This link to her report goes to an archived page, because the original report has since been taken down from Heat Street, along with Mensch herself.
Yes: Murdoch’s organization reportedly repurposed Mensch to create “digital projects in the creative/strategic arena,” which Mensch only defined as “fun stuff.” She claims to have requested the move last August so she could pursue two unspecified projects for News Corp, but the only two projects she seems to have been working on since then are her Trump-Russia conspiracy blog and Trump-Russia conspiracy Twitter account. News Corp owns Fox News, by the way. Take that for what it is.
I don’t know if Mensch still works for News Corp, of if she ever did after Heat Street. I chose not to reach out to her for this article out of concerns it would leak. I expect to reap some sort of weird whirlwind, but I stand by this report.
About Mensch’s Report
I don’t have a major problem with Mensch’s report at its most general: That the FBI obtained a FISA warrant in October for two Russian banks connected to Trump associates. According to Mensch, this warrant (which she has since conveniently revised to two warrants) allowed the FBI to intercept electronic communications between those two banks related to “possible financial and banking offenses.” The FISA would have allowed the FBI to access any relevant communications with U.S. persons “incidentally” swept up in the targeted collection. In this case, those persons were expected to be Trump persons.
I believe this much of her reporting is accurate. It was later reported by Paul Wood of the BBC, a report that was itself quasi-confirmed by The Guardian as well as one source at McClatchy. That won’t blow your hat off, but it’s something.
But Mensch created problems for herself: She didn’t stop where Wood did. The enusuing theories she’s built on her unnecessarily elaborate framework have predictably grown contradictory, and many of them are now flat-out indefensible. This FISA warrant report leads directly to her blatantly false claim that Facebook committed espionage. If you want to frame it in Facebook terms, Mensch can no longer regulate her own information.
Her first unnecessary step was naming the two banks: Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) and Alfa Bank. The astute reader will notice that Silicon Valley is not in fact in Russia at all, but is a famous tech hub just outside the American city of San Francisco, CA. To be fair, SVB does indeed have a connection to a Russian bank called Sberbank, via a memorandum of understanding from back in 2012. The U.S. export-import bank also has a memorandum of understanding with Sberbank. Mensch neglected to make this distinction in her initial report, claiming multiple times that Silicon Valley Bank was flat-out a “Russian bank.”
Obviously she didn’t have to name the banks. She could (should) have realized, “Wait, Silicon Valley isn’t in Russia,” and then verified her sources and their claims. She could have harbored doubt. She could have been skeptical enough of that weird part of her report to leave the banks nameless (Paul Wood did) and go with the rational stuff. (As for Mensch’s sources: “two sources with links to the counter-intelligence community,” though Mensch clarifies neither the community/s nor affiliated nation/s.)
Pay attention to that SVB/Sberbank name. That will come back to bite.
Mensch engineered her second liability with the claim that the FBI drew up this FISA report based on evidence of a Trump Organization server’s odd interaction with servers from both SVB and Russia’s Alfa Bank, a bank with close ties to the Kremlin:
That light blue text there links to a Slate report that dropped a week before Mensch’s, about the Trump Org server’s communication with Alfa Bank. Nowhere does this report mention Silicon Valley Bank or Sberbank.
Did Mensch not read her own supporting citation? Is she that irresponsible, or so eager to publish her explosive claim that she trusted her anonymous sources more than public reports? Something else? Her supporting citation is misleading at best, especially considering the magnitude of this anonymous leak. She could have cut that detail, or at the very least qualified it, rather than linking out in an ersatz citation. I will say it many times: There’s no reported evidence that the SVB server talked with the Trump Org server, as Mensch claimed as recently as last month. More on that later, too.
The server registered to the Trump Org at Trump Tower (but which, in another Mensch miscue since corrected, was actually located in Lititz, Pennsylvania) had been communicating almost exclusively with Alfa Bank and a server from an entity called Spectrum Health. This behavior still hasn’t been fully explained. It’s weird any way you look at it, but we’ll get there.
The point is that both of these stories (the FISA rumor; the server chatter) were already out there when Mensch pubbed her Nov. 7 report. Slate’s Franklin Foer broke the server story about a week before Mensch filed her scoop; several other organizations had heard rumors about it but decided not to pursue. The NYT said it had inquired with the FBI, which for a while was taking the report so seriously it asked the paper to stand down, then eventually told the NYT there was no “there” there. The Times said rumors of FISA warrants had been getting around, too. It’s easy to see there’d be a temptation to fuse these elements into a single story. Pieces fit, right?
I don’t think Mensch was entirely wrong: I think she’s almost entirely wrong. For instance, she points out that the BBC, the Guardian, and McClatchy all confirmed her Nov. 7 report. This is half-true. The BBC (really not the BBC; a single, albeit highly respected, foreign policy columnist named Paul Wood) reported in early January that the FBI was in fact granted a FISA in October on two Russian banks. Like Mensch, Wood also said the FISA was related to money laundering, specifically looking for money transfers between those banks that would lead to Trump associates. He never mentions the Trump Org server, though. And unlike Mensch, he never names the banks.
Note also that Wood doesn’t even give Mensch or her report a nod or even a link.
Mensch says this confirms her (unmentioned) report “in every respect.” She also said this about The Guardian.
The Guardian actually reported its confirmation as follows (emphasis mine): “The Guardian separately confirmed the original request for a FISA warrant, which had been turned down earlier in the summer, and former officials said they believed that the Mensch and BBC [Wood] account of the FISA warrants was correct.” The Guardian didn’t say it had independently confirmed Mensch and Wood’s reports: The paper only felt comfortable citing “former officials” who “believed” Mensch and Wood were right.
Also, as I just laid out in way too much detail, this is hardly “in every respect.” Some key details are unclear. For instance, was Mensch’s report correct in the respect that the server was in Trump Tower? No. Was Mensch’s report correct in the respect that SVB had already been reported as interacting with that server? No. These are objective facts. Both Mensch and Wood said “two Russian banks,” but Mensch originally named SVB, an American bank. She made no reference to Sberbank; obviously SVB isn’t what anyone would flat-out call a “Russian bank,” even if it were deemed an agent of Russian influence. Did the “former officials” clarify to the Guardian that this is why both Mensch and Wood could be correct, even though Mensch had literally called an American bank a Russian bank (NOT an agent of Russian influence.) If the Guardian didn’t even ask that question, that doesn’t speak much of their vetting of these “former officials.”
The Guardian only independently confirmed that an FBI request that summer had been turned down.
Mensch also says that McClatchy confirmed her report. (That link also includes a screen cap of a Fox News story Mensch claims corroborates her, but neither her name nor her story are mentioned or linked.) But, just like The Guardian, McClatchy didn’t say that it had independently verified the claim, rather that “one of [its] sources confirmed the report.” PLUS: That confirmation wasn’t even for Mensch’s story. It was for Paul Wood’s story. Importantly, again, Wood said the FISA was specifically about financial crimes and money laundering. (Remember this.)
In sum, neither Paul Wood, The Guardian, nor McClatchy ever mention the Trump Organization server or name the “Russian banks” under warrant. And neither Wood nor McClatchy confirm Mensch directly. The closest thing we have to a direct confirmation of Mensch’s “in every respect” is a vague half of a sentence from The Guardian’s “former official” sources that mention no specific aspects of Mensch’s report, including its patently false assertions.
This is really important: Mensch is either deluding herself into thinking her report has been confirmed, or she’s purposefully duping her readers. Keep in mind as her position gets less tenable that she’s still pushing these claims as if she’s been vindicated by the entirety of the mainstream press.
Speaking of: Aren’t there tons of other hard-hitting news organizations with deep links to the massive US intelligence community? Of course other news organizations heard all these rumors, too, including the Failing New York Times, the Washington Post, Vice, the Intercept, and Reuters. All had been briefed on the server story, and some even heard talk of FISAs. None thought this particular story (the Trump Org server and connection to FISAs) was worth running. Weird! NONE of them!
Even today, ten months later, despite Mensch’s incessant crowing, despite all the clickbait Trump-Russia bombshells and independently verified reports of actual FISAs (Page and Manafort), despite hearing all these rumors for weeks before Mensch dropped her “bomb,” not a single mainstream source has corroborated with any specificity the entirety of Mensch’s first report: A FISA on two Russian banks (yes); named Alfa Bank and SVB (no); granted based in part on the activity of that Trump Org server (no).
But from the start Mensch fired back at them anyway. (Note—this is an attack on the MSM, the first of many to come from Mensch.) From her original report:
“Contrary to earlier reporting in the New York Times, which cited FBI sources as saying that the agency did not believe that the private server in Donald Trump’s Trump Tower which was connected to a Russian bank had any nefarious purpose, the FBI’s counter-intelligence arm, sources say, re-drew an earlier FISA court request around possible financial and banking offenses related to the server… The FBI agents who talked to the New York Times, and rubbished the ground-breaking stories of Slate (Franklin Foer) and Mother Jones (David Corn) may not have known about the FISA warrant, sources say, because the counter-intelligence and criminal sides of the FBI often work independently of each other employing the principle of ‘compartmentalization.’”
Sounds solid, right? Until you do a little googlin’ and find out in three seconds that the FBI’s money laundering unit is a criminal unit. It’s not part of the counterintelligence unit. The FISA warrant that Mensch reported and the BBC confirmed was about money laundering. It was a criminal investigation. The compartmentalization Mensch says suckered the NYT would have been in the opposite direction. Not at all what Mensch describes.
Or is it? Mensch in March, saying the complete opposite fucking thing:
“No,” she’ll counter. “There were TWO warrants!”
1. The FISA warrant asserted here is criminal. Like the one she said, back in November, wouldn’t have been available to the FBI criminal division.
2. Had there been one counterintelligence warrant, I’ll happily point out its existence hasn’t been corroborated by any reputable source.
Still believe her? Okay, there’s more.
Mensch’s original report made it seem like two other linked articles (graphic below: NYT and Slate) accepted as ground rules that the server was literally in Trump Tower. Neither of those reports mention the phrase “Trump Tower.” Also, as noted earlier, the server was not in “Donald Trump’s Trump Tower.” It was in Pennsylvania.
Next, Mensch inaccurately reported the Alfa Bank server was in Trump Tower. Not the Trump Org server: The Alfa Bank server. (“That is a fact.”) She made this claim on her blog twice, actually. This is insane, but just for shits, was the IP address in Trump Tower? Alas, Mensch offers no evidence. Let’s go to the original report as well as Slate’s story enough, the server was in Moscow.
(I’m truly happy to be corrected with proof at any time on any of this, by the way: That would mean Trump is already totally fucked.)
Have you noticed we’ve heard nothing yet about SVB (or Sberbank)? It’s all been about Alfa. There’s a reason: There’s nothing there.
The first major outlet to report in detail the Trump sever-Alfa connection was Slate. This is Mensch’s only cited true source in her Heat Street report. Slate never mentions SVB or Sberbank. The only activity noted was between the Trump server and the Alfa server. In fact, no report (including any from Mensch) has offered up hard evidence of a relationship between SVB and the Trump Organization server.
Back in March, CNN reported on the FBI’s investigation into the Trump Org server and its link to Alfa. The article mentions a really odd pattern: about 80% of the activity was from Alfa Bank; about 20% was from Spectrum Health, which is connected to Betsy DeVos’s brother. That’s almost the entire amount of activity. What about SVB? Not in there anywhere. The original research that all this is built on never mentions SVB, either. The only servers it cites are from Alfa.
I’ve got to pull back a bit right now. The Trump-Alfa server connection is pretty damn odd, especially considering the De Vos link. And though one knock against the conspiracy is that the pings didn’t coincide with major campaign events, the pings actually do coincide with major behind-the-scenes events.
There’s a case to be made, from available data, that the Alfa server might indeed have been communicating with the Trump server in a money laundering operation.
Source (the original report on the server) here.
On the first, zoomed-in graph, note the spikes on the days around the June 9 Trump Tower meeting. Note the spikes in late June corresponding with the macro graph: Trump started raising big RNC money. (Recall Manafort’s “RNC Donations” note.) Late July activity? The conventions, as well as the release of DNC hacked emails. The spike in early August? Disinformation campaign kicks into high gear, and Guccifer 2.0 releases DCCC emails. Early September? Clinton gets pneumonia and stumbles. This stupid incident was actually a statistically large poll mover. Why? Because fake news sites and bots were all over it. Around that same time Sessions meets with Kislyak. The end is haywire and errors before the Alfa server shut down when a reporter called with questions.
In other words, you can certainly overlay a story of payments and money laundering that match these events. Then again, there are so many Russia-related events and coincidences that this would hardly hold up. But you can’t dismiss it, either.
But of course there’s an array of competing narratives about the server activity. One says the data might have been artificially skewed to highlight Alfa and Spectrum, considering there were 19 other servers that engaged in this same communication with the Trump server, and that data could have been minimized. Alfa itself now says the computer scientist who first officially reported the strange activity might have fallen victim to a hoax, and called for a full DOJ investigation. This claim isn’t crazy. The hacker who gathered the original data has taken down the site that hosted the data. Only this report remains.
Mensch might be correct in that the communication between the Alfa and Trump servers was related to money laundering. This is hardly evidence, of course, but it’s compelling, especially if Mensch’s stories have framed the way you think about the world.
But where’d she get the idea SVB was also hitting up this server? There’s no room the data. She never reveals evidence.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I SOUND COMPLETELY INSANE. When you talk about insane things, you sound insane. You can’t win. This is part of the problem.
At the end of the day, though, here’s what I think about her report:
Mensch is likely right that the FBI got warrants to intercept communications between Russian banks related to money laundering and the Trump campaign. There’s even a fair chance she’s also right that those banks are Alfa and Sberbank.
But Mensch has built her reputation and reporting off this horseshit server theory. You know why I can be so confident it’s horseshit? Because Mensch contradicts herself about it constantly, so she can preserve an aura of being right. She also lies: The sources she says confirmed her reports “in every respect”? You can find out with a click that this isn’t true at all.
In other words, Mensch lies all the time about this story. She logically cannot be right.
This matters. (We’re finally closing in on Facebook.) Remember that Paul Wood never mentions Mensch or her report. Why? Because disinformation damages people, tribes, and eventually societies. I don’t know what Mensch’s agenda is and don’t want to speculate, but whether pride or something more pernicious, it’s fair to say it isn’t pure.
Case in point:
Did Facebook Commit Espionage?!?!?!
Somewhere along the line, Mensch changed the angle of her story: Turns out these Russian banks weren’t just laundering money through the Trump server; they were also laundering data. Don’t understand that? It doesn’t make sense, anyway, but here’s her basic allegation. (Theories in full here and here.)
Let’s walk through this.
1. Russian spy steals voter data; gives to Cambridge Analytica.
2. Cambridge Analytica “washes” that stolen data to Trump through SVB server.
3. That data goes to the same fucking server used to handle money laundering.
4. The Trump campaign uses that data to inform its social media targeting.
5. The Trump campaign worked with Facebook (and Google and YouTube) to maximize its ad value.
6. And there you have it: Facebook knowingly committed espionage on the United States of America.
In case you were wondering, nope, no hard evidence. So how did we get here?
In a recent report on her blog, Mensch writes: “I can now report that it was not only Alfa Bank whose server was communicating with the Trump server; SVB Bank was communicating with that server too, using its own dedicated server.”
She can report, all right, but she doesn’t support. She says it’s true because her sources blah blah, and then 200,000 people take her at her word.
Now, at first blush this SVB data laundering twist might seem pretty far afield from “the FBI got a warrant on two Russian banks to monitor for money laundering,” but that’s only because it is.
Get out your tinfoil and distilled water, folks.
Let’s unpack this.
Mensch asserts that Alfa owns the company that owns Cambridge Analytica, a shadowy cabal of evil genius data masterminds who, to drop in on some Menschhead Twitter threads, basically control the known world. (They are in fact a frightening group, but more later.) Naturally, at this point you would just assume that Mensch is crazy, and that Alfa doesn’t own Cambridge, nor its parent company, SCL. As her source, Mensch cites a blog and adds her own flair. This is entertaining:
Alfa Bank owns the SCL Group through subsidiaries of the Tchenguiz brothers.
This theory exists because the brothers had 40% of Icelandic Bank Kaupthings capital tied up in loans to them. Anne Marlow speculates further:
“Kaupthing’s largest shareholder, Meidur, now called Exista, which owned 25 percent of its shares, had ties to Alfa Bank, the largest Russian commercial bank; Alfa chairman was “deep state” figure Mikhail Fridman, chairman and co-founder of Alfa Group, the parent of Alfa Bank. Meanwhile, Trump adviser Richard Burt is on the “senior advisory board” of Alfa Bank. (None of which is illegal or secret.)”
If guano could be marvelous, this would be it.
Because guess what? There’s no need for this theory. It’s completely unnecessary. Cambridge wouldn’t have to “wash” its data to Trump via secret server. It would just send its compiled data profiles normally because Trump is its fucking client.
(Want to know how Trump could have shared this Facebook geographic micro-targeting data with Russia perfectly “legally”? I’ll hit that later. Pretty fascinating. And boring.)
If you’ve got a conspiratorial bent, of course, my criticism won’t affect you. But another conspiracy might:
The same blog post that Mensch cites for evidence that Alfa more or less controls SCL/Cambridge also happens to mention the address of SCL Elections: “Cambridge Analytica’s website in December 2015 listed its New York address as Suite 2703 in the News Corp. building, 1211 Avenue of the Americas, the same New York address formerly listed on SCL Elections’ website as its New York office.”
Know who lives in New York and is pursuing two alleged creative new media projects for News Corp?
But I’ll leave it to her to create the crazy theory about how she’s committing espionage, because now we need to focus on Facebook.
You Hate America
Here’s the whole fascinating, infuriating, boring story.
According to this fascinating BBC video profiling the Trump campaign’s digital marketing efforts, Cambridge Analytica has loads of personal data on more than 200 million Americans. The woman interviewed in the video acknowledges that Cambridge “specializes in psychographics,” and that Facebook, Google, and YouTube embedded employees were the campaign’s “hands-on partners.” Asked why Cambridge’s data was so effective, she says, “that’s their secret sauce.”
The Trump campaign did indeed enlist Cambridge Analytica to help target ads. Facebook, Google, and YouTube even had employees in a temporary office in Trump’s San Antonio digital headquarters. In fact, the Trump campaign (like anyone would) made sure those employees were favorable to Trump’s message.
This, though, is normal for exactly any campaign. It’s even normal for businesses. I worked at a company that got to work hand in hand with Google ads. Their database was discomfiting, and that was two years ago. A presidential campaign’s access would be even more penetrating. Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital marketing lead, said he could have been able to target “15 people in the Florida panhandle I would never buy a TV commercial for.”
In other words, the Facebook database could easily have pinpointed areas in swing states where people were personally susceptible to Trump, places like Michigan and Wisconsin, where polls told a different story. Facebook data doesn’t care about polls: It pointed out vulnerabilities. The Trump campaign could have combined its Cambridge Analytica data (perhaps secretly informed in part by data from voter rolls stolen by Russia) with Facebook’s algorithms to exploit those vulnerabilities.
There’s another question: Russians also pushed geographically targeted ads. Some of those ads, we now know, were sent to small groups of people in key regions such as Michigan and Wisconsin. We have to wonder how Russia would have known it would have success targeting specific areas that all available polling data showed weren’t worth targeting. We also have to wonder at the crazy coincidence that these overlap with Trump campaigns.
It seems targeting information somehow got from Trump to Russia. Two most likely ways:
From Trump to Cambridge (legally as part of contract) then from Cambridge to representatives of Russian interests; or
the Trump campaign could have shared access to Facebook ad data with Russian representatives directly—THROUGH FACEBOOK. All you’d need to do is to allow another Facebook account (any account) to have access to your Facebook ad services.
It really is that simple. Anyone with an ad account can do it.
It’s likely that third parties for Trump and Russia would have set up such a deal, probably with cutouts in the middle. Trump’s own employees could have done something like this honestly, without knowing those accounts were linked to Russian representatives—let alone to Facebook’s knowledge.
This could all be done out in the open. You don’t need to cover up data exchanges in a business relationship predicated entirely on the exchange of data.
But her emails!
Almost forgot about Clinton. Was Facebook helping her, too? Or was Facebook too busy committing espionage against the United States for a pig-eyed fascist on behalf of Russia?
Surprise! Facebook is a fucking business. It wants to make it easier for people to spend money. Facebook offered the Clinton campaign the exact same amount of support it offered the Trump team, but as a Facebook spokesperson told The Guardian, “campaigns make their own strategic decisions about how to use the Facebook platform.”
Why was Clinton’s social media game so much less effective? Simple: They thought they would win.
First of all, Clinton’s ads sucked in general, plus for some reason she invested in traditional media. But more interestingly, the Clinton campaign had developed its own super-secret strategic algorithm, called Ada. The algorithm was hosted on a (gulp) private computer server, and only a few aides had access. The idea was they’d unveil Ada after the big win as their secret ingredient. The Washington Post reported Ada was consulted for nearly every strategic campaign decision, including ad placement.
Aides would feed Ada polling data by the truckload, as well as ground-level micro-targeted voter information the campaign had amassed. Each day Ada would run 400,000 simulations of the race, then compile the results into a report of which states were the most critical, and where the campaign should devote resources. You can see how successful this strategy was for Clinton by visiting www.whitehouse.gov.
Facebook didn’t ignore Clinton. Clinton ignored Facebook.
Weird. A year ago, it was common knowledge that Facebook was firmly in the Clinton camp. In fact, conservatives railed against the social media company for censoring “conservative” news stories, which turned out to be fake news. And Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, said she wanted Clinton to win “badly.” Clinton was reportedly considering Sandberg for two cabinet positions. Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Eric Schmidt were also repeatedly reported to be close to the Clinton campaign. And Dustin Moskovitz, Facebook’s cofounder, gave a cool $20 million to Clinton and other Democrats in 2016.
And what would Facebook gain by undermining democracy? The Trump camp reportedly paid Facebook a total of $70 million over the course of the campaign. No small amount to be sure, but they weren’t Facebook’s biggest ad customer. Facebook’s ad revenue increased by 57% in 2016, to about $27 billion. One-fifth of one percent (.002) of that revenue came from the Trump campaign.
So the thought is Mark Zuckerberg ran the numbers and decided to sell out America for a little more than 1/100 of 1% of his $500-billon company’s value, risking absolutely everything, including prison, in order to help Putin help Trump cheat to get elected.
While censoring conservative fake news.
And calling the FBI on Russia.
Yep: Facebook called the FBI twice during the election cycle to report suspicious Russian activity. They got no help.
But should Facebook have known?
Maybe? The Post reported that President Obama confronted Zuckerberg after the election, on November 19, to warn him about the very real dangers of fake news. But Obama didn’t feel comfortable enough even at that time to mention Russia by name, ten days after the election. And no U.S. law enforcement or intelligence officials visited Facebook to give them the whole rundown, even after the USIC confirmed the Kremlin had waged a massive disinformation campaign to tilt the election in Trump’s favor.
But did Facebook know Russians were buying ads? Yes and no. They knew Russians were, but not necessarily the Russian government.
Facebook reported that Russian accounts spent $100,000 on about 3,000 ads over a two-year period, from 2015 to May 2017, a number that’s certain to rise, but in Facebook terms is less than the salary of one entry-level programmer. Even if we increase that number by an order of magnitude, it’s only about 1/40,000 of Facebook’s advertising revenue over that same period. Should they reasonably be able to detect it? They have a responsibility to do it, but I’d say it’s pretty unreasonable of us to expect in hindsight they would or even could have. It’s abominable they can’t understand their business, but at the size it is, how could you expect them to?
The ads (some paid for in rubles!) seem like they’d be a blatant violation of U.S. federal election law, but it’s not so simple. First of all, benign Russian entities buy Facebook ads (in rubles) all the time. It’s fine. Next, Facebook said most of the ads the Russians bought didn’t actually support specific candidates. “The ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum,” the company said in a blog post.
In fact, that’s one reason Trump would want to use Russian attack ads: Third parties could say nasty, divisive things that Trump could not, about Muslims or immigrants for example. One such ad said, “They won’t take over our country if we don’t let them in.” Is that a political ad? How do you tell? What’s your criteria? Can you write a rule, then code for it?
What’s more, these ads were unregulated. Facebook managed to get its ads to be classified as “small campaign items,” the same level as buttons or bumper stickers, which means they didn’t need to disclose ad buys to the FEC.
Now there is a practical place to start overhauling immediately. But that’s also where things get really dicey.
We have every right to be afraid of Facebook and Google and the rest, but not because they’re traitors. We should fear what they can do, and what they can’t do about what they can do.
The regulation of information poses a unique challenge to the U.S. government. The first challenge is ability. The government is simply too far behind Silicon Valley and there’s no catching up. This is different from similar historical moments, such as trust-busting. Washington is years behind even comprehending what it is they’re regulating, and while they try, the gap literally doubles every two years. This is maybe why we blame Facebook and Google for not regulating themselves: We implicitly understand it’s hopeless.
Think about that: We ask a company to regulate itself, then we get upset when they don’t do a good job. Companies are biased. Even if they had the best of intentions, they still wouldn’t do a fair job.
The second challenge for the government is its authority. We run into major and valid First Amendment concerns. How can you say what’s “fake news”? What about writing that has some true stuff and some false stuff? What about parody? What third party can tell the difference between mistakes and intent? Who is a journalist? Who isn’t a journalist?
This isn’t the first time a capitalist model designed to maximize profit failed us socially, but it might be the first time such a failure is sanctioned by the constitution. Here’s a piece I did on a perfectly legal, perfectly terrifying way to exploit Google’s algorithms to sow massive amounts of targeted disinformation. When you get into that gray area, who is the arbiter of truth?
How can you say something is illegal when it’s in the fucking constitution?
Take Louise Mensch’s story, for instance. Look how intricate it is, how seductive, how exciting. How duplicitous. It becomes difficult to tell were truth begins and ends, if truth ever began in the first place. I don’t have the truth for you, either. I likely got some stuff wrong in this article, but I don’t know it’s wrong (yet). Does that make what I have to say true or not true, taken in total?
I realize these are rhetorical questions. I don’t know many answers. But if Facebook, etc, violated FEC law, we need to hammer those arrogant snobs as hard as possible. I want to see it, and honestly I hope I do. I want to hit rewind and get our democracy back, too, but that’s impossible.
Without taking any public heat off Facebook, let’s refocus it and demand they make immediate fundamental changes to their platforms, processes, and transparency. It’s useless to hold them responsible, out of spite, for a cognitive impossibility at a standard we don’t even hold our own government. Their offense is unconscionable, but it happened long before Trump.
As for Mensch, perhaps she’ll issue a retraction. Or perhaps she’ll stage a histrionic truther campaign against herself to correct the record, which, aside from deleting her account, would be the best ethical way to atone to her followers for purposefully exploiting their well-founded doubts and fears about truth in America, and for taking advantage of those short-circuited minds to rewire them.
Because here’s the Menschian trick, the conspiracy theorist’s mantra: Anything is possible.
No, it’s fucking not. I don’t care what misinformation has done to your reality—this is the same world with the same laws of logic and facts that it was two years ago. Those realities are vulnerable and malleable, but the concept of such a world still exists. Refusing to believe in it anymore makes it disappear only for you. You’re going to drive yourself insane. You have the power, without being naive, try to regain some of your faith in facts, in patience, in people, and in the trust of a world we’ve sadly seemed to have lost.