Russia's Facebook Meddling Was Way Bigger Than Previously Thought

Lawyers for Facebook, Google, and Twitter will talk about confronting Russian disinformation

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The scale of Facebook’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election is growing clearer by the day. Before its top lawyer, Colin Stretch, went before congressional investigators on Tuesday, the company submitted its testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it shows the number of Russian-backed ads shown to Americans during the election was far larger than previously thought.

Around 29 million people were delivered 80,000 posts from 120 state-sponsored Russian pages from the period between June 2015 to August 2017. The Internet Research Agency, a company linked the Kremlin, was behind this content that was then, NBC News reported, “shared, liked and followed by people on Facebook, and, as a result, three times more people may have been exposed to a story that originated from the Russian operation.”

Because of this increased social engagement, Facebook estimates that up to 126 million people may have seen content from these accounts, around half of the electorate, but it’s impossible to say for sure.

Facebook's top lawyer Colin Stretch in D.C. on Tuesday.

Along with Stretch, lawyers for Twitter and Google went before the fourth hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism into Russia’s meddling with the 2016 election. The first hearing was held in March. Watch the hearing on C-SPAN. Here’s the testimony from Twitter and the testimony from Google, submitted ahead of time.

It’s a far cry from CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments in the days after the election, where he dismissed the notion that misinformation had any effect on the election. Zuckerberg went as far as to tell then-president Barack Obama that such messages were not widespread.

“I think the idea that fake news on Facebook — of which it’s a very small amount of the content — influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea,” Zuckerberg said during a speech in November last year at Techonomy, a technology conference in Half Moon Bay. It’s fair to say the comments haven’t exactly aged well.

Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Getty Images / Paul Marotta

Facebook has been keen to highlight the small scale of these new figures. Around four-thousandths of one percent of content is estimated to have been part of the affected over the two-year period. This equates to around one out of 23,000 pieces of content.

“Put another way,” a source told NBC News, “if each of these posts were a commercial on television, you’d have to watch more than 600 hours of television to see something from” these posts.

Using that as a metric, though, it becomes clear that it’s a relatively high chance that a typical American saw such a post. Data from Nielsen from last year shows the average American watches around five hours of television per day. This means that over an average year, Americans watch around 1,800 hours of television per year. Considering this is over a period stretching over two years, it becomes clear it’s not that unreasonable a figure.

Facebook and other social media platforms are growing into a more vital part of people’s daily routines. Research from MediaKix shows the average person will spend one year and seven months on Facebook over the course of their lifetime, spending around 35 minutes per day on the social network. These social networks are only going to grow into a more influential stream for ad buyers as time passes.

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