Many news reports on Facebook's revelation that it sold $100,000 in campaign-season ads to a Russian “troll farm” have, quite rightly, tried to put the figure in perspective.
The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig, Tom Hamburger and Rosalind S. Helderman, who broke the story on Wednesday, pointed out that “the ad spending from Russia is tiny relative to overall campaign costs.” Talking Points Memo noted that “the amount of money involved is minuscule by any campaign standard,” and the Associated Press explained that “the number of ads is relatively small.”
“The ad spending from the Russian outfit was dwarfed by overall spending,” reported the New York Post. Reuters offered a comparison: “More than $1 billion was spent on political ads during the 2016 presidential campaign, thousands of times more than the presumed Russian spending identified by Facebook's security team.”
Here is another point of comparison: President Trump spent $0 on television ads for the first 202 days of his campaign.
Recall that Trump boasted of his ability to spread his message without a big advertising budget.
“I don’t even know why I need so much money,” he told the crowd at a rally in June 2016. “You know, I go around, I make speeches, I talk to reporters. I don’t even need commercials, if you want to know the truth.”
In his first post-election interview, on CBS's “60 Minutes,” Trump credited social media with helping him win on the cheap.
“The fact that I have such power, in terms of numbers, with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et cetera — I think it helped me win all of these races where they're spending much more money than I spent,” he said.
A measure of restraint is certainly appropriate when considering the significance of $100,000 worth of ads. Yet Trump's campaign is evidence that impact cannot necessarily be measured in dollars.
Where the money was spent could be as important as how much was spent. Leonnig, Hamburger and Helderman wrote that “the report from Facebook that a Russian firm was able to target political messages is likely to fuel pointed questions from investigators about whether the Russians received guidance from people in the United States.”
Facebook reported in its blog post Wednesday that about one-quarter of the ads in question were “geographically targeted,” although company officials declined to provide specifics about what areas or demographic groups were the recipients. Of those targeted ads, the company said, more ran in 2015 than 2016.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday that the disclosure by Facebook confirmed one of the ways Russia sought to interfere in U.S. politics and serves as a “profound warning to us and others about future elections.”
“This is a very significant set of data points produced by Facebook,” Schiff said, adding: “Left unanswered in what we received from Facebook — because it is beyond the scope of what they are able to determine — is whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that.”
If — and this is a huge if — Americans advised the Russian firm on where to aim its ads, that would be a big deal, especially if the Americans were connected to the Trump campaign.
So, while we can't say that these Facebook ads from Russia were difference makers, we can't say they were meaningless, just because the expenditure was relatively small, either.