When Facebook announced Tuesday it had discovered a new coordinated influence campaign, thoughts quickly turned to its potential impact on the 2020 election. But thinking about this campaign in relation to elections may be missing the point.
The big picture: Russia's designs in 2016 went far beyond getting its preferred candidate into the White House. Some of its goals, including the apparent goals of the most recently discovered groups, do not appear to be primarily related to candidates.
We don't yet know if the new campaign was led by Russia's Internet Research Agency; Facebook did not attribute the operation. But we do know that the 2016 Russian campaign's goals went further than influencing the election.
- As the joint assessment on the 2016 election put it: "In trying to influence the U.S. election, we assess the Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order."
The pages Facebook identified presented the groundwork for building four fake liberal groups — importantly, including one designing a counter-protest against an alt-right protest.
- Jonathan Nichols, an expert in psychological operations, told Codebook that a loud, even violent, confrontation between white nationalists and counter-protesters would play into Russia's broader narrative of the United States as a hopelessly fractured mess.
The timing of social media campaigns shows that this isn't an election-by-election operation. Troll tweets spiked in summer of 2017, well above the levels of the 2016 election, per a FiveThirtyEight report.
Threat level: It's easy t0 interpret the new campaigns in terms of elections. The public first became aware of the modern Russian disinformation efforts in the context of broader 2016 election efforts — they manipulate political allegiances, and the messages are often framed in terms of political outcomes, like getting President Trump to resign. And Russian hacking efforts certainly appear to have been intended to help ensure Trump's election.
- But there's a danger in conflating the actual purpose of the attacks with how it affects us. You'll end up monitoring and protecting the wrong things.
Meanwhile, no one knows what to do: Lawmakers are not moving in the same direction to get anything done — nor do they fully understand exactly how disinformation campaigns work — as Axios's David McCabe and Haley Britzky noted from yesterday's Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on social media.
Lawmakers of both parties agreed that online influence campaigns are an urgent problem. But they are far from reaching consensus of how to tackle it.