Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
Maybe you saw it, too. On Thursday, I read aÂ post from Facebook executivestouting their determination to reel in the propaganda monster their platform had enabled in 2016âs election.
âWe are committed to protecting legitimate political discussion within our community,â Facebook said, citing its âaction plan against foreign interference,â which includes âhiring 10,000 people including ad reviewers, engineers and security experts and combining their skills with advances in AI [artificial intelligence] and machine learning to identify and remove content violations and fake accounts.â
Facebookâs moves come as congressional hearings continue on how Russians, with (as we now know) a more sophisticated understanding of social media than Hillary Clintonâs 2016 campaign, planted thousands of propagandistic memes on dominant online platforms including Facebook. These moves come as the Federal Election Commission isÂ mullingÂ new disclosure requirements for the election platforms. (UnlessÂ anticipatedÂ upcoming FEC vacancies stall this action.)
But whatâs most important, amid the recent news surrounding Facebookâs role as one of 2016âs top political propaganda platforms, is what is missing from Facebookâs statements. It’s also missing from the few media accounts about possible federal regulation of Facebook. What’s missing is the role of another communication platform owned by Facebook: Instagram. This is what Jonathan Albright, a Columbia University Journalism School professor and researcher recently told the Senate Intelligence Committee, and detailed in a long article onÂ Medium.com.
The âmost important development about the ongoing Facebook investigation isnât the tenfold increase in the companyâs updated estimate of the organic reach of âadsâ on its platform,”Â Albright wrote. “While the estimate increasing the reach of IRA content from 10 million people to 126 million people is surely a leap, after last weekâs [Senate] testimony, the real question we should be asking is: how did we suddenly arrive at 150 million? The answer is Instagram.â
âMy following analysis shows that Facebookâs sibling property, Instagramâa service larger than Twitter and Snapchat combinedâshould be seen as a major influence, targeting and engagement hub for the spread of political propaganda,âÂ Albright continued. âHow do I know? Because I amassed a huge trove of content, analytics numbers, and did the analysis to prove it. To show the reach and use of Instagram for political propaganda the last two years, Iâve collected the following evidence: First, the full profile analytics, post ‘like’ history and comment statistics, and the complete contentâincluding text, dates and original URLsâfor a sample of Instagram posts from 28 of the 170 removed accounts. These posts accounted for 2.5 million recorded interactions (not estimated ‘shares’) and 145 million projected total interactions based on Socialblade, Klear, and Keyhole influencer data.â
Albright is one of the foremost investigative reporters, dealing with millions of real recorded social media posts and interactions, including tracing how content spreads. His latest conclusion is that Instragram, which Facebook owns, has been overlooked in the congressional scrutiny of its parent company and Google and Twitter in understanding how social media fanned and exploited propagandistic divisions among the electorate in 2016. More important, what Albright highlights remains online todayâincluding what he labels the thousands of âzombieâ memes and other posts from 2016.
Instagram More Influential Than Twitter
âI argue here that Instagram is more pervasive than Twitter for political meme-spreading as well as viral outrage video-based behavioral re-targeting,â he said. âPart of the reason for this is because it uses the same range of Facebookâs universe of sophisticated ad targeting infrastructureâincluding Lookalike and Custom Audiences. The Instagram platform can even link even video views to direct response and campaign objectives.â
Albright goes further, explaining that Silicon Valley top coders built the communications network that not only spreads viral content, but leaves it lingering online, and mines user interactions and compiles psychological profiles to further this provocative dynamic.
Letâs take these step by step.
âInstagram is also a major re-distributor of IRA [Internet Research Agency, a Russian company] memes: TwoÂ unofficialÂ third-party ‘re-sharing’ apps on Instagram have circulated and pushed IRA content far beyond the realm of Instagram and Facebook, and embedded it all over the internet. This includes cross-posting of memes and posts from removed accounts from Instagram back into Facebook, Instagram, and also into Twitter. These apps also helped the memes get over to Pinterest.â
This recycling has led to a stunning observationâone that partly accounts for the deepening poisonous nature of arch-partisan politicsâwhich is the observation that much of 2016âs political propaganda is still circulating, despite Facebook and other sites taking steps to close these accounts.
âAll of the [IRA] accounts Iâve studied here have been removed, so the fact that much of their content is still lingering is a critical concern,â Albright said. âAs far I can tell, this creates a ‘zombie account’ situation. Since this content, mentions and links actually didnât disappear when the original profiles were taken down, the true reach of the IRA content has yet to be uncovered. Itâs likely that much of it has been missed in the audience reach and impact estimates.â
2016âs Propaganda Was Different
Albright goes to great lengths to describe how the political propaganda spread on social media in 2016 differed from what was the standard political campaign TV and radio advertising. First, it wasnât broadcasting at all. It wasnât a dozen TV or radio ads in the fall before a general election aimed at swaths of swing voters. It was narrowcasting, created and fine-tuned to the prejudices of much more selectively targeted individuals.
âThe Russian âadsâ were mostly promoted posts and micro-targeted calls to action,â he wrote. âThey encouraged Americans to follow fake Pages, and engage with and vocalize about political and social issues through comments, âReactions,â and âLikes.â Once these things happened, the campaigns used Facebookâs analytics tools and ad tech infrastructure to track and target them further. On Facebook, Instagram, and across the internet through Facebookâs âAudience Networkâ and other partner marketing channels like Axciom.â
Notably, social mediaâs visual elements preyed on the psychological aspects of viewerâs impressions and quick takes.
âFrom what Iâve seenâand Iâve seen thousands of threads and postsâI feel this makes the debates on Instagram more focused on the issue, video, or meme sitting at the top of the thread. For sowing division and finding wedge issues, Instagram is an ideal visual meme broadcast factory,â wrote Albright. âJust as Facebookâs recent statement describesâthese âadsâ were part of a wider effort intended not just to âsway an election,â but rather to âcreate a sustained relationship whereby users subsequently posted about topics and issues pushed out by the accounts.â These are something like a psychological Trojan horse.â
The technical backends of Facebook and Instagram werenât just Trojan horses, sneaking messaging in past unsuspecting viewers. They were egging on viewers to more embittered or emotional thoughts or action, then cataloging those reactions for further use by ad-buying propagandists.
âUsers were encouraged to follow profiles, ‘turn on their notifications’ for the accountâs newly shared posts, respond to outrage videos, and visit the hundreds of websites and online stores the Instagram profiles linked to in their bios,â Albright wrote.
Silicon Valley Created This Monster
âAs Iâve consistently argued,Â American tech companies have set up the infrastructure needed to ‘hack an election,’â Albright wrote. âRussian groups simply purchased the ability to target specific groups of Americans before, during, andÂ afterÂ the election through Facebookâs self-service psychographic advertising services.â
âThis provides the impetus whereby Americans can be tracked and re-targeted through otherÂ affiliateÂ technologies, data profiling services, and served âcookiesâ and device fingerprinting outside the scope of Facebookâs reach,â he continued. âThe point is, the effort wasnât just to âinfluence an election.â It wasnât just to get people to âfollowâ the Pages and âturn on notificationsâ and sign up for fake events.â
Albrightâs analysis continues to describe how social media is just transforming political campaigns and elections, and how the websites behind social media platforms are prying into the cracks and crevices of peopleâs lives and compiling digital dossiers to provoke behaviors and outcomes.
âThese campaigns were done with the intent to direct people to third-party websites, install mobile apps, engage with outrageous âviralâ content, and collect emails, address, and payment information during âshopping cartâ checkouts,â Albright said. âEven at its most basic, the Facebook ad infrastructure can be used to unknowingly recruit friends, family members, and co-workers for sponsored messages and political data-driven micro-targeting.â
âPeople were also prompted to take action on deep-seated controversial issues,â he continued. âIn some cases, âadsâ succeeded in recruiting Americans to physically attend the fake Facebook âEvents.â But this, of course, probably meant better re-targeting. The persistence of the Facebook ad tech and self-service audience segmentation tools greatly enhance the ability of coordinated influence campaigns to shape longer-term behaviors and attitudes at the population level.â
Albrightâs message during his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony is that we need to consider the deep âbehavioral reach and data privacy implications of these attempts to create a âsustained relationship with the Pages.ââ While that warning may be too much to ask of a GOP-dominated Congress, since no political party wants to question the tools that elected it, his warning is sobering.
It also shows how meager Facebookâs latest public relations messaging is in response to the political turmoil its network engendered.
âWeâre improving our systems to keep activity on Facebook authentic,â Facebook’sÂ Action Plan said. âThis includes hiring 10,000 people including ad reviewers, engineers and security experts and combining their skills with advances in AI and machine learning to identify and remove content violations and fake accounts… Weâre updating our policy to block ads from Pages that repeatedly share stories marked as false by third-party fact-checking organizations.â
These steps are long after the Trojan horses left Facebookâs barns and rely on much the same tools Facebook used to create a system and platform that it cannot controlâto self-police. As Albright strongly suggests, we are in a politicized world and we have no good way to stop the digital barbarians at the gate.