Breitbart , of course, also lent Steve Bannon, its chief, to the Trump campaign, creating another feedback loop between the candidate and a rabid partisan press. Through , Breitbart went from a medium-sized site with a small Facebook page of , likes into a powerful force shaping the election with almost 1.
By December, it was doing 10 million interactions per month, about 50 percent of Fox News, which had There is no precise equivalent to the Breitbart phenomenon on the left. Rather the big news organizations are classified as center-left, basically, with fringier left-wing sites showing far smaller followings than Breitbart on the right.
And this new, hyperpartisan media created the perfect conditions for another dynamic that influenced the election, the rise of fake news. And these people loved Donald Trump. It was just the most bizarre thing in the entire world. But Pizzagate was but the most Pynchonian of all the crazy misinformation and hoaxes that spread in the run-up to the election.
BuzzFeed , deeply attuned to the flows of the social web, was all over the story through reporter Craig Silverman. By September of , even the Pope himself was talking about fake news, by which we mean actual hoaxes or lies perpetuated by a variety of actors.
The longevity of Snopes shows that hoaxes are nothing new to the internet. What made the election cycle different was that all of these changes to the information ecosystem had made it possible to develop weird businesses around fake news. Some random website posting aggregated news about the election could not drive a lot of traffic. But some random website announcing that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump definitely could. The fake news generated a ton of engagement, which meant that it spread far and wide.
A few days before the election Silverman and fellow BuzzFeed contributor Lawrence Alexander traced pro—Donald Trump sites to a town of 45, in Macedonia. Some teens there realized they could make money off the election, and just like that, became a node in the information network that helped Trump beat Clinton. Whatever weird thing you imagine might happen, something weirder probably did happen.
Reporters tried to keep up, but it was too strange. Of course they wanted to maximize engagement, too! There were reports that Russian trolls were commenting on American news sites. Ukrainian journalists run a website dedicated to cataloging these disinformation attempts called StopFake.
It has hundreds of posts reaching back into A Guardian reporter who looked into Russian military doctrine around information war found a handbook that described how it might work. The influence campaign just happened on Facebook without anyone noticing. As many people have noted, the 3, ads that have been linked to Russia are a drop in the bucket, even if they did reach millions of people.
Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, pulled data on the six publicly known Russia-linked Facebook pages. He found that their posts had been shared million times. And those were six of pages that Facebook has linked to Russian operatives. The Russians are good at engagement!
Yet, before the U. In the aftermath of these discoveries, three Facebook security researchers, Jen Weedon, William Nuland, and Alex Stamos, released a white paper called Information Operations and Facebook. One key theme of the paper is that they were used to dealing with economic actors, who responded to costs and incentives.
When it comes to Russian operatives paid to Facebook, those constraints no longer hold. Add everything up. The chaos of a billion-person platform that competitively dominated media distribution. The known electoral efficacy of Facebook. The wild fake news and misinformation rampaging across the internet generally and Facebook specifically. The Russian info operations. All of these things were known. There were hundreds of millions of dollars of dark ads doing their work.
Fake news all over the place. Macedonian teens campaigning for Trump. Ragingly partisan media infospheres serving up only the news you wanted to hear.
Who could believe anything? What room was there for policy positions when all this stuff was eating up News Feed space? Who the hell knew what was going on?
As late as August 20, , the The Washington Post could say this of the campaigns:. Hillary Clinton is running arguably the most digital presidential campaign in U. Donald Trump is running one of the most analog campaigns in recent memory. The Clinton team is bent on finding more effective ways to identify supporters and ensure they cast ballots; Trump is, famously and unapologetically, sticking to a s-era focus on courting attention and voters via television.
Certainly, the Obama tech team that I profiled in thought this was the case. Of course, social media would benefit the youthful, diverse, internet-savvy left.
And the political bent of just about all Silicon Valley companies runs Democratic. It cited Sasha Issenberg, the most astute reporter on political technology. University of North Carolina journalism professor Daniel Kreiss wrote a whole good book, Prototype Politics , showing that Democrats had an incredible personnel advantage.
By late October, the role that Facebook might be playing in the Trump campaign—and more broadly—was emerging. Joshua Green and Issenberg reported a long feature on the data operation then in motion. These ads are only visible to the buyer, the ad recipients, and Facebook. How was anyone supposed to know what was going on, when the key campaign terrain was literally invisible to outside observers?
Steve Bannon was confident in the operation. We know its power. The conventional wisdom was that Trump was going to lose and lose badly. It even comes with an instruction manual now.
To undermine something is to weaken its very foundation in order to bring about its eventual collapse. Underminers is a radical guide to dismantling the. Editorial Reviews. Review. To undermine something is to weaken its very foundation in order to bring about its eventual collapse. Underminers is a radical guide.
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