Russian Trolls: Why Facebook is quickly becoming Public Enemy #1

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As regular readers of the Smoking Gun PR blog will know, we’ve been following the fake news situation with keenness. After all, it impacts on almost every aspects of our business, from its effect on the perceived legitimacy of what the public sees, hears, and reads, to the growing malaise towards the dissemination of information on social media.

With this in mind it should come as no surprise that today’s post is dedicated to new revelations that Facebook sold some $100,000 of programmatic advertising space to a so-called ‘Russian troll farm’, which bought the digital real estate as a means to spread content relating to the US presidential election.

What that means is the world’s ‘favourite’ social network- with account numbers equal to almost 1/7 of the world’s population- has made money from entities that sought to influence a foreign country’s democratic process by spreading misinformation.

“In reviewing the ad buys, we have found approximately $100,000 in ad spending from June of 2015 to May of 2017 — associated with roughly 3,000 ads — that was connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages in violation of our policies,” said Facebook Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, in a statement. “Our analysis suggests these accounts and Pages were affiliated with one another and likely operated out of Russia.”

There’s an ongoing investigation surrounding the impact digital content from Russia may have had on the overall American campaign, hence the widespread question as to whether the country ‘hacked’ America’s electoral system. This news now proves there can be no doubts as to whether or not the intention was there to distort the landscape in such a way as to influence the outcome.

What this means for Facebook 

Facebook hasn’t had that easy a time of things lately in PR terms, with fake news just one of the many problems people are finding with the way the network works. In the grand scheme of things, with more than $3billion in profits during the last quarter alone- much of which comes from ad sales- the $100,000 sold to this ‘troll farm’ is a drop in the ocean. But then we don’t know there haven’t been more sales made to other accounts that are still to come to light.

And what this certainly shows is the checks and balances currently in operation on the social network, which should be protecting the public from malicious and false information, are not fit for purpose. Yes, they have admitted the problem, but almost nine months after the results have been counted and a new face has arrived in the White House is well over a year too late. Trust, it seems, is only going to decline.

What this means for brands

In the last issue of our newsletter, Smoking Gun MD Rick Guttridge waxed lyrical on how brands were being failed by social networks not doing enough to safeguard against this sort of thing. Perhaps now that we are seeing more and more evidence mounting that transparency policies have failed in the most gargantuan way possible- i.e. in the context of an election in the most powerful nation on Earth- we will start to see a backlash, with more and more firms beginning to call Facebook into question.

Or not, as the case may be. One major problem with that theory is it ignores the blog post we published last week on the decline of advertising, in terms of spend and influence, and the way in which this is likely to lead to a greater reliance on social media amongst businesses. And by that we’re including spending money with the major networks.

However, the persistent and insidious problems regarding information on social media are likely to make people look increasingly to traditional sources of information- such as the press and mainstream media- because although press standards have been called into question many times before, there are rules and regulations in place to dictate those standards, and independent and impartial bodies exist for the sole reason of trying to ensure those standards are met.