Is Russia Renting Your Aunt’s Facebook Profile?

BuzzFeed editor Craig Silverman warned that disinformation may take new and frightening forms as the 2020 presidential election approaches.

Craig Silverman was hosted by the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. (Maansi Srivastava/GW Today)
Craig Silverman was hosted by the Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics. (Maansi Srivastava/GW Today)
February 24, 2020

By Ruth Steinhardt

The infrastructure of online media—complex, poorly regulated and constantly evolving—is ripe for exploitation as the United States approaches its 2020 presidential election, journalist Craig Silverman warned Tuesday at the George Washington University.

While deliberate electoral meddling by foreign states and planted misinformation from partisan actors have received increased attention and concern since the 2016 election of Donald Trump, these are far from the only threats, Mr. Silverman said.

“You can’t just think about content—about what’s true and false—and you can’t just think about people who are trying to influence politics or influence voters,” Mr. Silverman said. “It’s also about this whole large, messy, difficult and in many ways corrupted media ecosystem that we have.”

Mr. Silverman, a media editor for BuzzFeed News who has covered disinformation and media manipulation for a decade, was the inaugural Knight Fellow hosted by GW’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics (IDDP), an interdisciplinary research hub tracking the spread of distorted information online. IDDP and the Knight Fellowship are supported by a $5 million investment from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

To explain the disinformation threats facing voters in the run-up to November’s election, Mr. Silverman first described his investigation of companies renting Facebook profiles from private citizens for a small monthly fee. These ad launderers then run clickbait ads—often involving false claims about celebrities and linked to so-called “subscription scams”—on the rented profiles, thereby evading Facebook’s bans on setting up such marketing profiles directly.

Such schemes are on their faces financial, not political, Mr. Silverman said. But they can have deeply political outcomes. According to the New York Times, Russia bought a number of rented Ukrainian Facebook accounts in order to influence the Ukrainian presidential elections in 2019.

Political and commercial actors also have taken online advantage of the bleak journalistic landscape, Mr. Silverman said. As thousands of local newsrooms close across the country, impostor pages posing as “local news”—mostly composed either of aggregated content or sloppily-written placeholder articles—push a political agenda or host thousands of dollars worth of advertisements. Among other examples, a BuzzFeed investigation found that one such page, “Denton Daily,” consisted only of plagiarized content and earned money by referring visitors to sketchy financial schemes and newsletters.

Such undermining of the authentic news media is one factor creating space for the emergence of an “infrastructure of alternative reality,” Mr. Silverman said. Conspiracy theories are more accessible and more comprehensive than ever before, spanning entire networks of websites and vast communities on Twitter and elsewhere.

Perhaps most alarming is the emergence of what Mr. Silverman called “the for-profit deception industry,” in which so-called “black PR” firms offer their clients manipulated search engine results, fake social media profiles, mass trolling and more. One such firm, Israel’s Archimedes Group, promised to “change reality according to our client’s wishes.” To affect an election in Nigeria, for instance, Archimedes Group created Facebook pages both for and against their client’s candidate—probably using the latter page to identify and later convert or suppress opposition voters, Mr. Silverman postulated.

While there is no evidence that such firms have been used to influence a U.S. election yet, Mr. Silverman said, “There are places in the world where this is a regular part of the process.”

He called the 2016 election “a wakeup moment” for many people and companies, and said that platforms like Twitter and Facebook have tried since then to “up their defenses” against malicious actors.

But as the platforms try to implement barriers like profile verification and third-party factchecking, Mr. Silverman said, marketers of all stripes continue to innovate “new, interesting and often very profitable” ways around those barriers.

In some ways, the most dangerous condition for American voters is the struggle to adapt to a chaotic and often exhausting information environment, Mr. Silverman said.

“It is fundamentally different from the way we were consuming information for a very long time, the change happened very quickly, and it is still constantly evolving at a very fast pace,” he said. “That is a good thing for people to be able to exploit, frankly.”

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