How dumb are we, anyway?
It’s a real question. There is, of course, an entire industry devoted to the proposition that we’re all absolutely dumb enough to believe obviously skewed representations of the facts. It’s called “advertising” and it’s the only way Facebook breaks even — and it breaks better than even, with gigantic operating margins and huge revenues.
Many detractors of the ongoing investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election have had a different answer to my question: We're not that dumb — or, at least, certainly not dumb enough to be swayed to vote for Trump by a bunch of stupid memes about a cartoon frog posted on the internet.
The Mueller report lays out a very different view of the American public. Facebook, the social network with more than 2 billion accounts active every month, comprises a full sub-section in the part of report devoted to Russian "active measures" on social media — the section about electioneering misdeeds of a hostile foreign government. Facebook apparently lent it an inadvertent helping hand by simply not paying much attention to how its platform was being used from at least 2014 forward.
Since Facebook’s primary revenue stream is not much bothered by fake accounts and fraud — despite its years-long insistence on various versions of a "real names" policy to the detriment of many marginalized communities — neither are its executives, for the most part. What the company and its investors primarily fear is regulation, a future with which conservatives enthusiastically threatened them at multiple congressional hearings last year because Facebook had suspended so many of their supporters for hate speech.
Facebook’s thinking seems to be that any of its users can say anything that doesn’t jeopardize their relationships with people who could reasonably sue them — which is pretty much limited to mega-corporate intellectual property holders — and people with the electoral clout to pass laws that could harm their bottom line — namely the conservatives in the House and Senate. Don’t insult those two groups of people, and you can do whatever you want on Facebook.
'Sweeping and systematic'
And people do.
Facebook, in fact, was so used to letting bad actors do anything they didn’t notice Russian phone numbers, IP addresses in St. Petersburg and payment for electioneering ads in rubles during the Russian security service’s "sweeping and systematic" interference in the 2016 election, as Mueller puts it. And thus, he writes, through its contractors at a firm called the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” owned by billionaire Putin confidant Yevginy Prigozhin — who also runs mercenary army The Wagner Group — the Russian military ran an extended disinformation program on Facebook targeting Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and aiding her opponents, especially Donald Trump. And much of that campaign involved pretending to be people they weren't.
Long-time Facebook users are likely aware of a common variation of this. Multiple times last year, for instance, I got friend requests on Facebook from people with whom I thought I was already friends. At least once, I was unsure whether we were still connected and clicked “confirm request” — and immediately got a message from the “friend” sharing good news about a government program that was doling out cash to the deserving if I would simply provide them with my checking account routing number. Some version of it has been going for years, and Facebook is rarely successful in proactively policing it, relying instead on users to report the fakes accounts once they’ve been scammed.
I am not the only one dumb enough to click “confirm request.” About once a week, some account with an avatar photo of a pouty 20-something woman tries to add me — the current offender, “Angelina M. Barbara,” has lots of publicly visible fashion-plate pictures of herself and a banner photo of a male demon and a female angel in flagrante. At least half the time, these accounts have a “mutual friend” with me. (Yes, the mutual friend who accepted the request is always a man. No, the men are not always single).
This stuff is annoying and potentially extremely inconvenient, though unlikely to be disastrous. But it is also disinformation — information distributed with the intent to deceive, as opposed to misinformation, which is information disseminated in honest error. And if a platform allows disorganized disinformation to proliferate, it is only a matter of time before it will have the organized variety on its hands.
Like those of us who have truly believed a pal from high school might really be stranded without her wallet at an airport in Belarus and needed to be wired cash immediately, the people who participated in the Russian disinformation program in the United States appear to have done so in good faith. According to the Mueller report, they attended rallies organized by Russian intelligence operators from St. Petersburg, and joined Facebook groups about police violence and gay rights, or border security and patriotism. In one incident so creepy it’s even a little funny, real Facebook users wished troll farm owner Prighozin a happy birthday. “In May 2016, IRA employees, claiming to be U.S. social activists and administrators of Facebook groups," Mueller writes "recruited U.S. persons to hold signs (including one in front of the White House) that read ‘Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss,’ as an homage to Prigozhin (whose 55th birthday was on June 1, 2016).”
Can you catfish an individual? Everyone knows, in many cases from personal experience, that you can. Can you catfish a whole voting bloc? After the Mueller report, the more pressing question is: Who will stop you?
Sam Thielman is an editor at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School
This piece was first published by NBC Think.