It’s not just Facebook — Google and Twitter also face scrutiny for Russian ads

While most of the attention has focused on Facebook when it comes to running Russia-linked ads designed to influence the 2016 election, Google and Twitter are also under the microscope for doing something similar, which reinforces the point that this isn’t a problem related specifically to Facebook, but one connected to something much broader about how Internet platforms behave, and the way advertising and media work now.

All three companies have been asked to testify before both the Senate and the House intelligence committees, which are investigating how much influence Russian agents connected to the government had over the information flowing through those networks about the 2016 campaign. Reports from both the FBI and the CIA have said that this likely had an impact on the election, although the magnitude of that impact is difficult to quantify.

In early September, when Facebook was starting to draw attention for links to Russian election-meddling, Google went on the record as saying it hadn’t found any sign of similar untoward advertising campaigns on its platforms. “We’re always monitoring for abuse or violations of our policies and we’ve seen no evidence this type of ad campaign was run on our platforms,” the company said in a statement to Reuters.

A little over a month later, the company was telling a different story. Although it hasn’t confirmed the reports publicly, sources told the Washington Post, the New York Times and Reuters that Google had come across signs of advertising buys that appeared to be part of a Russia-backed misinformation campaign involving the election — although the ads don’t appear to be from the Internet Research Agency, the “troll factory” behind the Facebook campaign.

The campaign on Google represented less than $100,000 worth of advertising. A total of about $5,000 worth of search ads and display ads were bought by accounts believed to be connected to the Russian government, according to the New York Times, while a further $53,000 or so were bought by accounts with Russian Internet addresses or with Russian currency. It’s not clear whether these were related to Russian government entities.

Google doesn’t offer advertisers the same kind of granular targeting that Facebook does, in which individuals can be selected to receive a specific message based on their political views and other information. The company also has a policy that prevents targeting of ads based on race and religion. Ironically, Google found the Russian-linked ad buying by using data from Twitter, a source told the Washington Post.

As with Facebook, the fact that Russian government entities and other agents were able to buy and distribute ads and other information on Google and Twitter is not a bug or a flaw in the system but an example of it working exactly as intended. All three companies have built more or less automated advertising networks that allow companies and individuals to buy ads with virtually zero human input.

Twitter has been a bit more forthcoming with information than Google, but its efforts haven’t been universally well-received. The company told members of the Senate intelligence committee in a closed-door hearing in September that it had found and shut down about 200 accounts associated with the Internet Research Agency, and it said that the Russian news site RT — which many believe is tied to the government — spent about $275,000 on Twitter ads in 2016.

One of the top-ranking Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee wasn’t impressed by Twitter’s efforts, however. Mark Warner said that the company’s presentation was “inadequate” and “deeply disappointing,” primarily because Twitter only searched its databases for information related to the accounts that Facebook had already identified.

“The notion that their work was basically derivative, based upon accounts that Facebook had identified, showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions, and again, begs many more questions than they [answer],” Warner said after the presentation.

Not only that, but some of the data that Twitter relied on has since been deleted as a result of the company’s privacy policies around retention of information, according to security analysts. That could complicate the Senate and House investigations into how these platforms were used by Russian agents to try and influence the election.

According to research from the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a public-policy group in Washington, more than 600 Twitter accounts — run by both human users and suspected bots or automated accounts — have been linked to what appear to be Russian attempts to influence voter behavior around the election.  Other research has also shown signs of a “bot army” that was mobilized by foreign agents during the election.

Thomas Rid, a Strategic Studies professor at Johns Hopkins University and an expert in Russian disinformation tactics, told Politico: “Were Twitter a contractor for FSB [the Russian intelligence agency], they could not have built a more effective disinformation platform.” Clint Watts, a former FBI agent, said Twitter is problematic because “the truth is they don’t know who is on their platform, or how bad people are doing bad things.”

In a blog post in June, a senior Twitter executive said that the company believes that the network’s “open and real-time nature is a powerful antidote to the spreading of all types of false information.” This is important, he said, because “we cannot distinguish whether every single Tweet from every person is truthful or not. We, as a company, should not be the arbiter of truth.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has made similar comments when pressed about the company’s responsibility for stopping “fake news” and other forms of misinformation.


Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot with restrictive social-media policies

The relationship between media outlets and social platforms like Twitter has always been a tense one. On some level, publishers know they have to be there, because that’s where the news happens, and it’s also where their content gets sharedbut at the same time, they are afraid of what might happen if reporters and editors speak their minds.

The New York Times waded back into this particular swamp when it introduced an update to its social-media guidelines, and reinforced the fact that its staff are not to express any “partisan opinion” on any social platform. The Times also noted that while reporters might be using these accounts on their personal time, anything said on them is the purview of the paper because of their association with it.

Not to be outdone, the Wall Street Journal also released an update to its social-media policy this week. It reiterated the existing prohibition against “posting partisan comments on social networking sites,” and added that the paper’s management believes that some reporters and editors “are spending too much time tweeting.”

The impetus for these statements is hardly a mystery. The Times has come under fire (from the president and others) for being anti-Trump, and the paper’s editors are no doubt hoping to mitigate some of that by preventing reporters from tweeting anti-Trump diatribes. The Journal, meanwhile, has been criticized for being pro-Trump.

In other words, these new policies amount to an attempt at damage control. The Times guidelines say tweets that editorialize on the news “undercut the credibility of the entire newsroom,” and the Journal‘s statement says such behavior “erodes the hard-won trust of our readers.” Everyone must be scrupulously objective, or at least appear that way.

There are a couple of obvious problems with this. One is that only a vanishingly small number of people likely believe that reporters at the Times and Journal are objective anywayor that they are even trying to be. Most probably feel that each outlet is biased in a variety of ways, and they probably didn’t get that idea from a reporter’s tweets.

And what qualifies as partisana belief that the president shouldn’t repeatedly lie? A belief that black lives matter? These policies are likely to further smother voices that need to be heard, like those of women and people of color, who are already poorly represented in media.

A debate over whether true objectivity is even possible, let alone desirable, would require a much longer discussion. But suffice it to say that this particular train has probably already left the station, much as newspaper editors might like it to return.

The bottom line is that those who believe that the Times is out to get Trump, or that the Journal is out to prop him up, are unlikely to change their minds simply because reporters and editors revert to robotic tweets that contain nothing but the facts, and a link that their editors are desperately hoping someone will click on so they can make their monthly numbers.

So the first downside of these kinds of policies is that they won’t achieve what publishers want them to achieve. The second, and possibly even more important, point is that they will also prevent media outlets from using social media to its full potential, and that could cause far more long-term harm than a rowdy tweet about Trump’s IQ or Cheeto-colored visage.

To the extent that social media worksin the sense that it allows media outlets and journalists to connect with their readers and/or viewers, and allows those readers to both promote and provide feedback on their journalismit works because it is social. And being social means being human, and being human means expressing opinions, and in some cases being wrong.

If someone tells you that they have no opinion, even on serious issues, that they are totally objective and that they also never make a mistake, you would probably think they are either a liar or a sociopath. And yet that is what social-media policies like the ones at the Times and the Journal are essentially asking people to believe.

This flawed approach is even more dangerous for publishers who, like the Times and the Journal, are relying increasingly on subscriptions, membership fees and other relationship-based models for their continued economic survival.

How do you convince people to support you in such a way? By building a relationship with them, one that encourages them to believe you share a worldview, or at least that you can be trusted. And how do you do that? Not by pretending you have no opinions, but by being as honest as possibleasking for feedback and admitting when you make a mistake. In other words, by being human.

Is this messy? Yes. Could it blow up in your face? Definitely. But retreating into your shell and trying to pretend that your reporters are not human beings actually encourages your readers to trust you less, not more. And that could be fatal.

A Little Personal News…

I’m excited to to announce that I’m joining the Columbia Journalism Review as chief digital writer, focusing primarily on the power of platforms like Facebook and Google (and Twitter and Snapchat) and what that means for media.

Digital and social networks have become the central distribution system for news for hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people. And that power — much of which is hidden from view, fuelled by mysterious algorithms — has profound implications for both media and society as a whole.

I’ve been a fan of the CJR ever since I was a young journalism student in Toronto — which was longer ago than I care to remember — and I’ve been impressed with what Kyle Pope has done in his time as editor of the magazine and the site, including a renewed focus on the web and the impact of digital media.

I’m also a huge fan of what my friend Emily Bell is doing with the Tow Center at Columbia, and I hope that we can find ways to work together to explore and understand what is happening to journalism and media. Or at least maybe get a cup of tea and commiserate 🙂

All joking aside, this is a dark time for journalism in many ways — but it is also a fascinating time, as the ground continues to shift beneath us, and even some of the bedrock assumptions underlying the industry are being questioned.

Journalism has arguably never been more important than it is right now, but the media landscape has also never been more fractured, more volatile and more under pressure — both financially and otherwise — than it is now, and much of the pressure is coming from Facebook and Google.

I hope to explore the impact of those forces in a variety of ways at CJR, and I hope that you will come with me on that journey and help me to explore and understand it.