A week before Hillary Clinton published her campaign memoir, Facebook seemed to validate her complaint that Vladimir Putin helped Donald Trump defeat her. But the social media platform's announcement about suspicious online political ads also highlighted common misconceptions about the nature of Russian attempts to influence the presidential election.
We often hear that Russia "hacked the election," "attacked our democracy" or "undermined the integrity of our electoral process." Yet so far all the anti-Clinton efforts blamed on Russia amount to attempts at persuasion, as opposed to interference in the casting and counting of votes. Our democracy probably can survive a few more voices in the cacophony of competing claims, especially if we cultivate habits of skepticism and critical thinking.
Facebook said it had identified about 3,000 political ads purchased by 470 or so "inauthentic accounts" that "likely operated out of Russia" between June 2015 and May 2017. The $100,000 spent on those ads was not even a drop in the bucket of Facebook's ad revenue, which totaled $27 billion last year.
Russian propaganda did not represent a significant share of political discussion on Facebook either. In a report published last April, Facebook estimated that "information operations," defined as "actions taken by governments or organized non-state actors to distort domestic or foreign political sentiment," accounted for "less than one-tenth of a percent of the total reach of civic content" during last year's presidential campaign.
Facebook has not released examples of the fishy ads, but it said "the vast majority...didn't specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate." Rather, "the ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum-touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights."
Fake accounts — opened by Russians pretending to be Americans, say — violate Facebook's terms of service. But foreign-sponsored online issue ads are permitted by U.S. campaign finance laws, provided they do not explicitly advocate a candidate's election or defeat.
Not that Russian operatives are necessarily careful to obey U.S. law. Last year's hacking of embarrassing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, for instance, was clearly illegal (and rightly so).
Those hacks nevertheless generated newsworthy and arguably relevant information, as unauthorized leaks often do. Clinton was not happy about the resulting news coverage, but that was precisely because she believed it would interest voters. Although Democrats suffered, it is not at all clear that democracy did.
In the end, voters had to decide for themselves whether it mattered that officials at the supposedly neutral DNC plotted to undermine Bernie Sanders, Clinton's rival for the Democratic nomination. They had to assess the significance of excerpts from Clinton's secret Wall Street speeches and a CNN contributor's tips to her campaign about debate questions.
Facebook users likewise were free to accept or reject the "divisive social and political messages" sent by online ads, regardless of who sponsored them. A speaker's nationality or motivation is logically irrelevant to the merits of what he has to say.
That remains true when what he has to say is verifiably false. In a presidential race where both major-party candidates had trouble with the truth, the fact that their supporters also trafficked in lies did not create a novel challenge for voters, even when those supporters were not Americans or were employed by a foreign government.
Facebook describes the ads placed by "inauthentic accounts" as "Russian interference in the electoral process." It promises to remain alert to such shenanigans because "we believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse."
The integrity of civic discourse does not depend on verifying the citizenship of people who participate in it. It depends on the ability to weigh what they say, checking it against our own values and information from other sources.
If voters cannot do that, maybe democracy is doomed. But if so, it's not the Russians' fault.
Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @jacobsullum. To find out more about Jacob Sullum and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.