During the 2016 Presidential campaign, the average adult saw at least one “fake news” item on social media. The people distributing the articles had a variety of aims and operated from a variety of locations. Among the locations we know about, some were in Los Angeles, others in Macedonia, and, yes, others were in Russia. The Angelenos aimed to make money and sow chaos. The Macedonians wanted to get rich. And the Russians aimed to weaken Hillary Clinton’s candidacy for president, foster division around fraught social issues, and make a spectacle out of the U.S. election. To these ends, the Russians mobilized trolls, bots, and so-called “useful idiots,” along with sophisticated ad-tracking and micro-targeting techniques to strategically distribute and amplify propaganda. The attacks are ongoing.
Cheap distribution and easy user targeting on social media enable the rapid spread of disinformation. Disinformative content, like other online political advertising, is “micro-targeted” at narrow segments of the electorate, based on their narrow political views or biases. The targeting aims to polarize and fragment the electorate. Tracing the money behind this kind of messaging is next to impossible under current regulations and advertising platforms’ current policies. Voters’ inability to “follow the money” has implications for our democracy, even in the absence of disinformation. And of course, an untraceable flood of disinformation prior to an election stands to undermine voters’ ability to choose the candidate that best aligns with their preferences.