Sinister Russian Manipulation of Facebook Lures Four People to a Rally

If you like sensationalist tales of foreign masterminds manipulating domestic dissension, The Daily Beast has a doozy for you:

The article beneath that headline informs us that "Russian operatives hiding behind false identities used Facebook's event management tool to remotely organize and promote political protests in the U.S." It then illustrates this with the tale of a rally in Twin Falls, Idaho. If the facts these writers relate are true, there's an interesting story here. Unfortunately, what's interesting about it is almost entirely obscured by the way the report is told.

First there is the bizarre fixation on Facebook, a company whose role the writers repeatedly invoke. I know that anything that puts Facebook and Russia in the same vicinity is media catnip right now, but surely the story here is that Russia would want to organize such rallies, not that it used Facebook to do so. Imagine that the KGB had covertly planned a demonstration on U.S. soil in 1980. If its organizers had spoken with each other on the phone, would your coverage focus on AT&T? If they had used photocopied fliers to promote the rally, would your coverage focus on Xerox? I have many problems with Facebook as a company, but surely the fact that its tools make it easier to organize events is a good thing, even if some of the people who use those tools are unsavory.

The other big problem with the piece is how it frames the operation:

The Facebook events—one of which echoed Islamophobic conspiracy theories pushed by pro-Trump media outlets—are the first indication that the Kremlin's attempts to shape America's political discourse moved beyond fake news and led unwitting Americans into specific real-life action.

"This is the next step," Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and expert on Russia's influence campaign, told The Daily Beast. "The objective of influence is to create behavior change. The simplest behavior is to have someone disseminate propaganda that Russia created and seeded. The second part of behavior influence is when you can get people to physically do something."

Sounds spooky, huh? But if you're still reading six paragraphs later, that spooky feeling may dissolve:

Although 48 people clicked that they were "interested" in the protest, only four said they went to City Council Chambers that day, according to the event page, possibly because it was a Saturday and the Council was not in session. It is also possible to claim attendance on Facebook at an event that didn't exist.

Twin Falls had already been the focus of sustained attention on anti-immigrant websites. So the people behind this rally weren't building from scratch here; they were plugging themselves into a preexisting paranoid narrative about foreign predators invading Idaho. And yet as best as we can tell, they were able to draw only four people to their protest. Maybe those wily Russians aren't so great at behavior modification after all.

We already had good reason to believe that Russia's propaganda campaigns consist largely of trying to amplify forces that already exist in our society. If this rally is typical, it suggests that such signal boosts haven't had much effect. Much as it may please some people to blame America's divisions on some alien force, they were born here in the U.S.A.