The Russian Social Media Campaign – How to See it in the Larger Context of Digital Capitalism (Pt 1/2)
Social media analyst Christian Fuchs argues that the focus on Russia’s use of social media to influence US elections completely ignores the ways in which we as a society are constantly being manipulated and how this manipulation favors authoritarian capitalism
GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert.
Two new reports both released on Monday provide new details about the ways in which a Russian company tried to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee commissioned the report from the cybersecurity company New Knowledge, and the organization Computational Propaganda, which is a project of Oxford University. According to these reports, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, or IRA, reached tens of millions of social media users in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017. They relied on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. IRA is the company that already caught the attention of U.S. investigators earlier this year when Special Counsel Robert Mueller secured an indictment against the company for interference in the U.S. election.
According to the new reports, IRA used a variety of strategies, such as targeting African-American communities with memes that cast presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in an unfavorable light. Joining me now to put these reports on social media and the 2016 election in a broader context is Christian Fuchs. Christian is a professor of media and communication studies at the University of Westminster in London, and author of the recently published book Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Trump and Twitter. Thanks for joining us today, Christian.
CHRISTIAN FUCHS: Hello.
GREG WILPERT: So these new reports by New Knowledge and Computational Propaganda Project caught a lot of attention in the U.S. media, because it reinforced the idea that the Russians are manipulating U.S. elections; a theme that to all those who are opposed to Trump have already been hammering away at. We’ve got a brief clip here of some of this commentary.
SPEAKER: There was an a amazing, sophisticated effort to target the African-American community. And there were YouTube pages and Facebook pages. There was a sophisticated and conscious effort to undermine Hillary Clinton in the black community. Other observers are saying in an election this close, tens of thousands of votes in a handful of states, it stands to reason that this effort made a difference.
SPEAKER: The numbers here–the 20 most popular page has generated 39 million likes, 31 million shares, 5.5 million reactions, almost 3.5 million comments. 126 million people on Facebook were reached, and 20 million more on Instagram. That’s staggering.
SPEAKER: Yeah, and that’s less than two dozen pages generated that type of reach.
SPEAKER: Less than two dozen pages, yeah. That’s incredible.
SPEAKER: It’s pretty easy to go down a pretty dark rabbit hole and find a lot of nasty content on social media these days. Some of it just published by Americans. But some of it published by people pretending to be Americans, and that’s the root of this report. That’s the root of this problem. People that are posing as Americans, trying to sow division in our country.
GREG WILPERT: So Christian, what’s your reaction to this? As someone who studies social media use, how serious would you say are these latest allegations about Russian interference?
CHRISTIAN FUCHS: I think when discussing these issues it’s very important that we take the broader political economy of it into account, which seems to be a bit underreported in popular reactions in the U.S. news media to it. So I think there are three factors that play together that are important to bear in mind. The first one is that worldwide we are in a political situation where politics nationally and internationally is pretty polarized. And this has strengthened, has resulted in the strengthening of the far right throughout the world, in many parts of the world. So the shift towards an authoritarian type of politics, and an authoritarian type of capitalism is the first factor.
However, one should also see the role that capitalist internet companies are playing in this, because companies like Twitter, Google, and Facebook, they are making money through advertising. Big money, really. I mean, Google and Facebook are among the world’s largest companies, and they are basically advertising companies. So they target ads, they exploit the digital labor of the users, who generate data, content and metadata, and they just think the more activities there are, the more data is generated on their platforms, the better. And some of these things that have been targeted at voters, like fake news stories and so on, were run by targeted advertisement also. Targeted ads on social media are organized by algorithms, and the algorithm is blind for the content. So the algorithm does not care if what is being presented in the advertisement is about Christmas cakes or chocolates or about fascist propaganda. So in the end, these companies also have some responsibility, because for them it’s all about making money.
GREG WILPERT: Christian, I just want to turn to the question again of the Russian issue; that is, right now it’s been estimated, I think it was a report released by the Oxford Internet Institute earlier this year, that estimated that something like a half a billion dollar business is involved in–that is, all the different companies that are involved in advertising, trying to influence elections around the world, not just in the United States. So just wondering what your sense is, I mean, in terms of the greater scheme of things? Where this kind of Russian interference that so much of the media, U.S. media is focusing on right now, how big a threat is that compared to the business that you mentioned just now? Is already–I mean, it’s just such a big business. How does the Russian involvement compare to that?
CHRISTIAN FUCHS: Well, we don’t know the exact figures, and how much investment that was made, and so on. We also don’t know how much damage it actually cost. But I would see it from a different perspective here. I think we have nationalist and right-wing authoritarian movements throughout the world thriving. And this has to do with how politics is changing, it has to do with rising inequalities, it this to do with the spread of far-right ideology, it has to do with attempts to manipulate the working class, and so on.
And I mean, there is no doubt that Vladimir Putin is a right-wing, authoritarian politician. There’s no doubt, actually. But there is also no doubt that Donald Trump is a right-wing authoritarian politician. So I think these stories that are not new–I mean, they were reported last year already by the Guardian, and by investigative journalists, and so on. I think there is a truth to it. However, it’s not just a Russian story. Similar things are going on in the U.S. and in other countries. So the story about Cambridge Analytica was a story about companies and politicians who are based in the UK and in the USA who also, it seems, have used targeted advertising, a fake personality quiz, in order to collect a lot of personal data about users from throughout the world–but also from the U.S.–in order to target advertisements at them, and also trying to manipulate elections. And who was involved in Cambridge Analytica? Well, Steve Bannon, who made money with it, who was in Breitbart, who was an adviser to Donald Trump, and so on.
So it’s not necessarily about the conflict between nation states. It’s about the power of right-wing politics. The rise of the far right in different parts of the world, and how they try to make use of digital capitalism and its platforms in order to undermine liberal democracy. So in the end, the problem that you have here is that Facebook and Google and so on, social media, are the creation of neoliberal U.S. capitalism; a capitalism that has been immensely deregulated, privatized almost everything, including our data, has resulted in rising inequality. And this has now backfired.
So the rise of the far right is also a result of de-industrialization, rising inequalities and so on, throughout the world; not just in ihe U.S. And the far right, they are scrupulous. They will take–they will do whatever it takes in order to get their message out there.
TEXT: This concludes Part 1 of our interview with Christian Fuchs, professor of media and communciation studies at the University of Westminster, London.