Shortly after noon today, Senators Mark Warner and Richard Burr held a press conference on the Intelligence Committee’s investigation into Russian election interference. The long and short of it is, the committee is working hard and is still in the midst of gathering data, so don’t expect any final judgments anytime soon.
One important and clarifying point raised by Warner, however, concerned the revelations that Russian entities have spent more than $100,000 on divisive ads that Facebook estimates were seen by tens of millions of people. As has already been noted, the presence of such ads is concerning — CNN reported last night that some were targeted at swing states Michigan and Wisconsin — but the tangible impact is almost impossible to determine. It is doubtful that the ads had much effect on swinging the vote.
“What I believe is more problematic,” Warner posited, “is that they created false accounts.” The accounts, known in internet parlance as “sock puppets,” were “used to sow chaos.” Warner’s distinction is that, while we should worry about foreign powers using social platforms’ ad mechanics to boost their message, Facebook and its ilk are also powerful for people who never put any money into the platform. People, posts, and pages can go viral organically, and these large online spaces amplify their message exponentially. For the cost of an ad spend, maybe you could hire a few people to cause disruption using free accounts, just like everyone else. Hell, that’s been the Internet Research Agency’s M.O. for a while. The point is that being able to spend one’s way to political influence is just one of many vectors through which centralized social-media services can be exploited — there are other routes that can be just as effective, and don’t leave a financial paper trail.