So, tell us again how tech giants are more important than US govt...

Facebook, Google, Twitter get very rude awakening during Senate grilling

What were all those ads, anyway?

Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) gave a damning rundown of what the committee has learned so far about how the Russian government exploited the open nature of Facebook, Twitter and Google's services to spread propaganda – and at bargain-basement prices.

"Each of these fake account spent months building a following of real people," he walked through. "Most of the real-life followers had no idea they were being caught up in these webs that were later utilized to push an array of disinformation, including state-led propaganda, fake news and divisive content.

"The goal is pretty simple: get this so-called news into the news feeds of many potentially receptive Americans and covertly push them in directions the Kremlin wants them to go…. What is clear is that this playbook offered tremendous bang-for-the-disinformation-buck."

Which of course leads to the question: what were these actual ads? What is the content that everyone is so riled up about?

businessman shrugging - illustration via shutterstock

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Facebook initially refused to hand over details, but was then pressured to do so – and Congress now has a dossier on the estimated 3,000 Kremlin-masterminded ads. But aside from stating that they were "divisive" precious little information on them has actually been released.

And, somewhat weirdly, both sides are not keen on revealing the information, prodding the other to do it. Facebook's general counsel Colin Stretch told the intelligence committee that the company had no objection to the panel releasing the information. One member immediately fired back that it would prefer the tech companies to publish the detsails.

There was lots of batting about over the topics covered by the dodgy ads, and with great reluctance, the tech execs offered "immigration, police shootings" and "similar divisive content" but no real details.

Revealing exactly what was smeared all over the internet during the 2016 elections would, we reckon, be like opening Pandora's box: it would allow citizens to join the dots between Kremlin-crafted lies, the gradual acceptance of those lies online, the discussion and even promotion of said lies on mainstream news networks, resulting in, presumably, dozens of clips of senators responding with indignation about made-up information. In short, everyone is going to look like a chump if it turns out everything argued over last year was based on nothing but Kremlin-devised myths and urban legends. Rumors, in other words, designed to destabilize American politics and perhaps install a preferred candidate in the White House.

One topic senators felt was safe to reveal was a series of fake ads that informed people they could vote by text. It was directed at Hillary Clinton's supporters, and told citizens they could vote just by texting "Vote Hillary" or something similar to a specific number.

That is, of course, absolute nonsense – unless you're voting by mail, you have to physically turn up at a specific location and have your voter details checked alongside a register before you can vote in person. And, as lawmakers noted, it is also illegal as it comes under voter suppression laws. Facebook said it took the misleading ad down as soon as it noticed it. The advert was clearly crafted to reduce the number of people voting for Clinton, which would benefit Donald Trump immensely.

It was also revealed there were Russian-run Facebook groups promoting protests... and counter-protests at the same time in the same place for maximum disruption.

That aside, the majority of the dodgy Russian ads – 90 per cent – weren't so clear cut. They were "issue based" and they hold up a mirror to American society. The sad truth is that it's not just the tech companies that were complicit in allowing Russian intelligence services to disrupt the election.

It was also the media, which covered the stories they wanted to be true without checking their provenance, and the congressmen and women who piled in on every issue in an effort to get attention and slam the "other side."

In short, we have seen the enemy. And it is ourselves. ®

Cooknote

Apple CEO Tim Cook has stuck his iBoot in on this issue in an interview with NBC, telling the telly outlet that paid-for foreign ads are "0.1 per cent of the issue." The real problem, according to Cook, is that these services – he means Twitter and Facebook – are "used to divide and manipulate" and "influence our thinking."

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