23 Feb 2018 | Thomas Frank | The Guardian
Anyone who has ever tried to place an ad on ‘social media’ knows -and by this I mean Russians and Americans alike- that you promise to pay a certain amount, in this case $100,000, and then you ‘bid’ for spots on news feeds etc.
It is largely a waste of money because placement goes to the ‘highest bidder’ and unless you want to spend all of your ‘advertising budget’ in one fell-swoop, you will nickel and dime it in the hopes that someone, somewhere will see your ad.
They likely won’t.
And even if they do, how many of the dozens of ‘targets’ will care? Hardly any.
So the notion that ‘the Russians’ controlled an entire freaking billion dollar election with a $100,000 Facebook budget is completely asinine.
If this were even remotely true, each and every one of us could rule the world with a few hundred dollars a month!
And we would be doing so each and ever day. Indeed the entire of the internet would be overrun with ‘ads’ promoting one cause or another. And I do mean overrun. There would be no room for anything else!
“The grand total for all political ad spending in the 2016 election cycle, according to Advertising Age, was $9.8bn. The ads allegedly produced by inmates of a Russian troll farm, which have made up this week’s ration of horror and panic in the halls of the American punditburo, cost about $100,000 to place on Facebook.
A few months ago, when I first described those Russian ads in this space, I invited readers to laugh at them. They were “low-budget stuff, ugly, loud and stupid”, I wrote. They interested me because they cast the paranoid right, instead of the left, as dupes of a foreign power. And yet, I wrote, the American commentariat had largely overlooked them.
Now that Robert Mueller’s office has indicted the Russian actors who are allegedly behind the ads, however, all that has changed. American pundits have gone from zero to 60 on this matter in no time at all – from ignoring the Facebook posts to outright hysteria over them.
What the Russian trolls allegedly did was “an act of war … a sneak attack using 21st-century methods”, wrote the columnist Karen Tumulty. “Our democracy is in serious danger,” declared America’s star thought-leader Thomas Friedman on Sunday, raging against the weakling Trump for not getting tough with these trolls and their sponsors. “Protecting our democracy obviously concerns Trump not at all,” agreed columnist Eugene Robinson on Tuesday.
The ads themselves are now thought to have been the product of highly advanced political intelligence. So effective were the troll-works, wrote Robert Kuttner on Monday, that we can say Trump “literally became president in a Russia-sponsored coup d’etat”.
For thoughts on the finely tuned calculations behind this propaganda campaign, the Washington Post on Saturday turned to Brian Fallon, a former Hillary Clinton press secretary, who referred to the alleged Russian effort as follows: “It seems like the creative instincts and the sophistication exceeds a lot of the US political operatives who do this for a living.”
Of what, specifically, did this sophistication consist? In what startling insights was this creativity made manifest? “Fallon said it was stunning to realize that the Russians understood how Trump was trying to woo disaffected [Bernie] Sanders supporters …”
The Post added a few suspicious examples of its own. The Russian trolls figured out that battleground states were important. And: they tried to enlist disgruntled blue-collar voters in what the paper called the “rust belt”.
Okay, stop here. Since when is it a marker of political sophistication to know that some states are more persuadable than others? Or to understand that blue-collar voters are an important demographic these days?
If you’re one of those people who frets about our democracy being in serious danger, I contend that the above passages from the Post’s report should push your panic meter deep into the red.
This is the reason why: we have here a former spokesman for Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, one of the best-funded, most consummately professional efforts of all time, and he thinks it was an act of off-the-hook perceptiveness to figure out that Trump was aiming for disgruntled Sanders voters. Even after Trump himself openly saidthat’s what he was trying to do.
For a veteran politico to be stunned by this unremarkable fact, one of two things has to be true: either Democratic “political operatives” are incredibly bad at what they do, or else they are feigning amazement in order to get themselves off the hook for the lousy job they did in 2016. They themselves blew millions and came up empty, but to this handful of bargain-basement Russian trolls they ascribe all manner of ability. Clinton’s glittering Jedi army was simply powerless against them.
It is worth noting that the indictment itself, as the deputy US attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, said on Friday, declines to attribute any actual election results to the Russian ads. It is also important to acknowledge that I believe Mueller’s indictment is probably correct in its particulars. Everyone can see that we are living in an age of rampant propaganda, that conspiracy theories have never travelled faster. But no thanks to a new cold war.
Yes, go after the Russian trolls. Prosecute them for their alleged crimes. Punish Putin if he tried to jack with us. But understand that this sort of operation is not going away.
Its extremely modest price tag guarantees it, as does the liberals’ determination to exaggerate its giant-slaying powers. This is rightwing populism’s next wave, and in an oligarchic world, every American plutocrat will soon be fielding his or her own perfectly legal troll army. Those of us who believe in democracy need to stop panicking and start thinking bigger: of how rightwing populism can be undone forever.