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Facebook and Twitter worked just as advertised for Russia’s troll army

Social platforms are an effective tool for marketers — and nation states that want to disrupt an election.

Russian President Vladimir Putin Friedemann Vogel - Pool/Getty Images

We’ve known for more than a year that Russian actors used social media to try and influence the 2016 presidential election.

Now we know more about those campaigns, thanks to a lengthy indictment by special counsel Robert Mueller which details the Russian effort.

The key takeaway: The Russians pulled it off with the help of giant platforms like Facebook and Twitter.

That’s because Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies did exactly what they tell marketers they can do: They let the the Russians efficiently deliver messages to large groups of targeted people, much more effectively than they could if they bought TV ads or any other traditional ad campaign.

Russian agents took pains to disguise who they were, using stolen identities and virtual private networks when they interacted with both the platforms and their users.

But beyond that, their election interference campaign was a textbook example of how a legitimate U.S. business or publisher would create and dispense its own social media campaign. It all looked rather easy — and familiar — when you read through the indictment. The IRA employed a lot of the same strategies a new-age media company or savvy brand marketer might employ.

  • It tracked and measured how well those posts performed with standard engagement metrics like reach and comments.
  • It “divided [employees] into day-shift and night-shift hours” so that they could publish at the right time of day. It scheduled posts around the holidays.
  • It paid to promote some of its posts to specific groups of users, paying through automated ad sales products — which meant they never had to deal with company employees.
  • It published content and organized events around topics like Black Lives Matter or immigration, topics that elicit powerful feelings, especially online where people can take their feelings to the comments section.

So, yes, Facebook and Twitter were attacked by a nation state — just like Sony was when it was hacked by North Korea in 2014. The difference is, this attack didn’t disrupt the technology — it used the technology.

What we don’t know is whether this had an impact on the actual election results. Which, again, is a familiar feeling for the digital advertising industry, which can still struggle with what’s known as “attribution” — identifying which ad led to which sale. Identifying which post led to which vote will be nearly impossible.

This article originally appeared on

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