Email #330: “who exactly was helping them”?

Press Secretary Sanders said Monday:

“There’s clear evidence of the Clinton campaign colluding with Russian intelligence to spread disinformation and smear the president to influence the election.”

The lie is exceptional not simply because Sanders was responding to questions about the special counsel indictments of Trump campaign members on Monday, but also because of Monday’s congressional hearings on the role of internet companies in Russia’s interference in the election.

The Clinton campaign hired a U.S. firm that employed a former British intelligence agent to investigate Donald Trump’s activities in Russia, producing a dossier of unsubstantiated claims that was not made public until after election and so influenced no voters. But simultaneously, Russia was successfully exploiting U.S. internet companies to reach a wide range of American voters. As of this week, we now know:

126 million Facebook users saw 80,000 pieces of Russian propaganda, including over $100,000 worth of ads.

2,752 Russian-owned Twitter accounts posted 131,000 tweets, and 36,000 Russian bots posted 1.4 million tweets, receiving 288 million views.

Russia’s 1,108 YouTube videos received 309,000 views.

Russia created 170 Instagram accounts and 120,000 posts.

When asked whether the Russian content influenced the election, a Facebook lawyer answered:  “Senator, we’re not well positioned to judge why any one person or an entire electorate voted as it did.” The corporations’ lawyers also did not know how Russia targeted their propaganda, some of which reached precise subsets of voters in small swing districts.

Virginia Senator Mark Warner said previously:

“I get the fact that the Russian intel services could figure out how to manipulate and use the bots. Whether they could know how to target states and levels of voters that the Democrats weren’t even aware [of] really raises some questions.… How did they know to go to that level of detail in those kinds of jurisdictions? The Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play.”

Former Obama administration assistant secretary of defense Mike Carpenter told Vanity Fair:

“Could they have hired a warehouse full of people in Moscow and had them read Nate Silver’s blog every morning and determine what messages to post to what demographics? Sure, theoretically that’s possible. But that’s not how they do this. And it’s not surprising that it took Facebook this long to figure out the ad buys. The Russians are excellent at covering their tracks. They’ll subcontract people in Macedonia or Albania or Cyprus and pay them via the dark Web. They always use locals to craft the campaign appropriately. My only question about 2016 is who exactly was helping them here.”

Presumably special counsel Mueller is investigating Cambridge Analytica, the data-mining firm employed by the Trump campaign which has worked directly with multiple Russian businesses in the past. Jared Kushner coordinated with Cambridge Analytica while managing the Trump campaign’s voter-targeting data operations with Brad Parscale.

But regardless of any further outcomes from the special counsel investigation, Senators Warner, Klobuchar, and McCain have introduced the bipartisan “Honest Ads Act,” which would require internet companies to disclose who pays for political ads distributed on their platforms. The information–including the purchaser’s contact information, ad price, target audience, and number of views—would be available on a public database.

When asked at the hearings, none of the executives said they supported the bill. Republican Senator Collins reminded them during yesterday’s hearing:

“You have a special obligation here given your reach in American society.”

Senator Feinstein agreed:

“You bear this responsibility. You’ve created these platforms. And now they are being misused. And you have to be the ones to do something about it. Or we will.”

Republican Senator and Senate Intelligence Committee chair Burr agreed too:

“This is about national security. This is about corporate responsibility. And this is about the deliberate and multi-faceted manipulation of the American people by agents of a hostile foreign power.”

Since Facebook is one of the largest contributors to your election campaign, does that mean you will oppose the Honest Ads Act?

Author: Chris Gavaler

Chris Gavaler is an associate professor at W&L University, comics editor of Shenandoah, and series editor of Bloomsbury Critical Guides in Comics Studies. He has published two novels: School for Tricksters (SMU 2011) and Pretend I’m Not Here (HarperCollins 2002); and six books of scholarship: On the Origin of Superheroes (Iowa 2015), Superhero Comics (Bloomsbury 2017), Superhero Thought Experiments (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Iowa 2019), Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith (with Nathaniel Goldberg, Routledge 2020), Creating Comics (with Leigh Ann Beavers, Bloomsbury 2021), and The Comics Form (Bloomsbury forthcoming). His visual work appears in Ilanot Review, North American Review, Aquifer, and other journals.

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