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Online Advertisement Dystopia: How Russia Weaponized Social Media Platforms Against American Democracy

The investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election demonstrated the potential of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to disrupt the political atmosphere.

While the Arab Spring utilized the power of social media for democratization, the latest American Presidential Election revealed that same power can render Western democracies defenseless to foreign influence.

The tech industry now faces a dilemma between transparency and regulation. IR Insider previously reported that political pressure was weighing down on social media corporations as the Senate called upon top executives for full disclosure of political ads. The Senate argued that companies have a responsibility to ensure legitimate user-generated content even if advertisements are their largest source of revenue.

Facebook discovered that 126 million American users were exposed to 80,000 Russia-linked presidential election related, and Twitter shut down more than 2,000 fake Russian accounts. The ads were financially linked to a Russian company called the “Internet Research Agency.”

 Image Source: Politico

Image Source: Politico

The company, thanks to its ties with the Kremlin, did not have to reach a majority of users to affect election outcomes. In fact, the total financial cost of the ads is estimated to be between $100,000 and $300,000; a small price to pay for such widespread influence.

Contrary to popular opinion, the ads weren’t necessarily aimed at or for a particular candidate. They targeted multiple issues of sensitivity including gun control, immigration, the Southern flag, LGBT rights, the “Black Lives Matter” movement, political Islam, and Christian religious symbolism.

However, the ads did target voters in critical battleground states who could be “urged” to vote for certain candidates based off their pre-existing stances on these issues. 

At a House Intelligence committee hearing last Wednesday, Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, stated “We basically have the brightest minds of our tech community here and Russia was able to weaponize your platforms to divide us, to dupe us and to discredit democracy.”

Here are just a few of the 2016 Russian bought Facebook ads that were publicized at the hearing:

 Caricaturing Bernie Sanders as gay rights defender in front of the White House

Caricaturing Bernie Sanders as gay rights defender in front of the White House

 An image of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan, a Clinton supporter

An image of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan, a Clinton supporter

 An endorsement of the Black Panthers as fighters against the KKK

An endorsement of the Black Panthers as fighters against the KKK

 Taking a stand against “Radical Islam”

Taking a stand against “Radical Islam”

Although social media platforms pledge to take the necessary actions to tackle ads like these in the future, they do not seem to feel obligated to disclose private political ads or to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Facebook and Twitter are already arguing against regulations on their ad policies claiming that regulations would decrease innovative user-generated content.

Since Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008, social media has been the main battleground for political propaganda. Last year, the social media campaign manager for Donald Trump revealed the campaign's use of “Facebook dark posts” to demobilize people from voting entirely. In one instance, they targeted African-American men in major cities like Philadelphia.  

In a recent TED Talk, Turkish techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, from the University of North Carolina, points out how the algorithms used by social media companies to get users to click on ads are the same ones used to organize their access to political and social information.

We are building an artificial intelligence-powered dystopia, one click at a time.