Last October, with just a few weeks to go until the US presidential election, I pointed out something rather strange about Donald Trump’s election campaign. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump had read out a leaked email he claimed was from Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal. It suggested that, in Blumenthal’s view, the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented by Clinton, who was then secretary of state. The crowd lapped it up.
In fact, as I pointed out, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website.
It was already clear that the Russian government was meddling in the election. The Department of Homeland Security had issued a statement that the Kremlin had “directed” the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party and that its intention was “to interfere with the US election process”.
Nor was there much doubt that Moscow was behind the release by WikiLeaks of emails to and from Clinton, including many purloined from the Gmail account of John Podesta, her campaign chairman. However, we did not appreciate the full extent or sophistication of the Russian operation.
Shortly after the election, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news might have decided the contest in Trump’s favour. Last week he had to admit that he regretted those words.
We now know that before (and after) the election, Russian trolls with bogus identities bought more than 3,000 Facebook ads. Even though only $100,000 (£75,000) was spent, the ads could have been seen by tens of millions of people. Moreover, the Russians also used Facebook Events to organise phoney political protests in the US, including an anti-immigrant rally in a small Idaho town known for welcoming refugees. It was to be “hosted” by “SecuredBorders”, a Facebook group exposed in March as a Russian front.
Twitter was used in a similar way. In response to congressional investigations, the company admitted last week that it had identified about 200 accounts linked to Russia, and that the Kremlin-backed news site RT had spent a quarter of a million dollars on Twitter ads last year.
It is still too early to conclude that Russian use of social media decided the election. However, we probably can conclude that social media decided the election. It seems that the Russians were aiming more to widen US political divisions than to get Trump elected. The Trump campaign was aiming to get its man elected — and it spent far more than $100,000 on Facebook. About $90m went on social media, most of it on Facebook. Last November, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” I believe he is right.
I meet a lot of people these days with pet theories about why Trump won. Some talk about economic inequality, others about racial division, still others about Clinton’s inadequacy as a candidate. What all these people have in common is that they wholly failed to predict Trump’s victory, despite knowing all these things before November 8, 2016. The other thing they have in common is they underestimated the explosive growth in social media in the years of the Barack Obama presidency. The only indicators that reliably predicted the election result were Facebook and Twitter. Trump completely dominated Clinton on both.
Or to put it differently: if the social media platforms had not existed, Trump would have been forced to conduct a more conventional campaign, in which case the greater financial resources of his opponent — who outspent him by more than two to one — would surely have been decisive.
In less than a decade, the public sphere — and the democratic process — has been revolutionised. In 2008, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had 4,492 Twitter followers and 625,000 Facebook friends. Obama had four times as many “friends” and 26 times as many followers. Yet the platforms were still in their infancy. Facebook had been created at Harvard only four years earlier. Twitter was set up only in March 2006.
Today, Facebook has more than 2bn users around the world. In America, about two-thirds of adults are on Facebook. Nearly half — 45% — get their news from it. One in 10 get news from Twitter. About 40m people (and bots) follow @realDonaldTrump.
The problem is not just the outright fake news, such as that non-existent anti-immigrant rally in Idaho — though that problem will persist as long as identities can be made up without verification. Last week, a tweet appeared from what purported to be the Boston branch of the “Antifa” (anti-fascist) movement. “More gender exclusivity with NFL [National Football League] fans and gluten free options at stadiums. We’re liking the new NFL. #NewNFL #TakeAKnee #TakeTheKnee.”
How typical of the New England leftists to side with those football players who have been kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner in protest at police violence against African Americans! Except that the troll responsible for the tweet forgot to disable location services. It wasn’t a tweet from Boston. It was from Vladivostok.
Everyone — including Russian trolls, as long as they remember to conceal their whereabouts — can use social networks not just to spread falsehoods but to spread extreme opinions. This is a key problem that the titans of Silicon Valley gravely underestimated. Homophily — the tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together” — means that like-minded people form clusters in any social network, regardless of its size.
The result is massive polarisation. One recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative. A similar study of Twitter revealed that retweets have the same character: conservatives retweet only conservative tweets. Most striking of all, a newly published study of language used on Twitter demonstrates that, on hot-button issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change, it’s the tweets using moral and emotional language that are more likely to be retweeted.
The sky is darkening over Silicon Valley. Facebook or Fakebook? Twitter or Twister? Last week, Trump fired his first (and characteristically ungrateful) shot directly at Facebook: “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Zuckerberg shot back: “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”
The key question is how tenable that defence now is. A platform for all ideas? Or the most powerful media publisher in the history of the world? We used to think William Randolph Hearst — the inspiration for Citizen Kane — deserved that title. But Citizen Zuck has surely outstripped him.
In China he is excluded. In Europe he is increasingly regulated. But in America? Watch this Face.