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Did Russia Invade Your Newsfeed? We’re Going to Explain Everything.

Could this be Facebook's new user interface?


It’s like the plot of an incredibly strange, fairly boring spy novel. In the run-up to the 2016 American elections, Russian operatives used social media platforms to spread fake news and foment racial division.

They even enlisted Pokémon Go in their efforts. That’s right, kids – Charmander was a double agent.

So what do you need to know about Russian meddling? We’ve got all the details right here.

The Russians didn’t really screw around with Pokémon Go, right?

Oh, it’s true. CNN broke the story last week. In 2016 a Russian-linked Tumblr account encouraged users to “train Pokémon near locations where alleged incidents of police brutality had taken place.” Why did they do it? For now, that remains a mystery. As CNN reported, “It’s unclear what the people behind the contest hoped to accomplish…”

How did the operation work?

In short, Russian companies with ties to the Kremlin used fake social media accounts to buy ads on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, and Google at least one year before the 2016 U.S. elections. Those ads sought to influence voters through both fake news and crude attacks.

In September, Facebook acknowledged that fake Russian accounts bought more than $100,000 in political ads. They later disclosed that an estimated 10 million Americans had seen the ads.

Twitter has publicly identified at least 200 fake accounts (surely the tip of the iceberg) and Google is conducting an internal investigation.

While it’s still very early in the investigation, this “army of trolls” isn’t anything new. In an incredible 2015 piece for The New York Times Magazine, Adrian Chen documented the shadowy Internet Research Agency, a Saint-Petersburg based operation used to spread misinformation and propaganda online.

And in January, the National Intelligence Council released a report detailing “overt efforts by Russian Government agencies… and paid social media users or ‘trolls'” to influence the election.

Was every social media platform affected?

It’s still unclear how many companies have been affected by the dummy accounts, but intriguingly, it appears Snapchat has been largely immune from the problem. Because the company places strict reviews on partner news outlets and advocacy ads, the platform made it through the election without any (reported) problems.

Did I see Russian propaganda on my social media feeds?

We just don’t know. Facebook, for example, has turned over more than 3,000 ads to the Senate Intelligence Committee. But the company has not made those ads available to the public, arguing “we are limited in what we can discuss publicly about law enforcement investigations”.

Senators Mark Warner and Richard Burr of the Senate Intelligence Committee have since called on Facebook to release the ads publicly, but the company has not complied.

What’s being done about it?

Facebook, Twitter, and Google have already briefed House and Senate Intelligence committees on their own internal investigations. A public hearing is scheduled for November 1. Charmander is not scheduled to appear.

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