President Trump's weekend tweetstorm included a shout-out to Facebook executive Rob Goldman, who in his own tweets had argued three points that Trump found supportive to his claim that there was no collusion between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign.
- Most of the 3,300 Russia-linked Facebook ads that the social network discovered and disclosed last fall were designed to sow discord in the U.S. political system, not to swing the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor.
- Most of the Russian ad spending occurred after Election Day.
- The media does not cover these points.
Let's begin with a clarification of Goldman's second point. Facebook reported in an October blog post that "44 percent of total ad impressions (number of times ads were displayed) were before the U.S. election on Nov. 8, 2016; 56 percent were after the election.” Ad impressions are not exactly the same thing as ad spending, but the essence of Goldman's point stands.
Goldman included the timing of these ads among key “facts about the Russian actions that are still not well understood.” He might be right, but Facebook bears at least some responsibility because it did not disclose the timing until September, a month after it first publicized the existence of the ads.
If weeks of press coverage shaped the public's understanding of the ads but did not mention that most impressions occurred after the election, it's partly because Facebook had not yet said when the ads were first on view for users.
Goldman's first point about the purpose of the ads is valid, and, contrary to his third point, it has been well documented by the media. Here at The Washington Post, as in other news outlets, report after report after report after report has made clear that the ads were mainly designed to widen societal divisions, with only a minority of the ads explicitly promoting Trump over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
What makes Goldman's and Trump's tweets particularly misleading is the way they falsely suggest that Russia's Facebook ad campaign represented Russia's broader effort to interfere in the U.S. presidential election. Yes, the Facebook ads were more about sowing discord among Americans than boosting Trump, but the ads were just one small part of a bigger plot that, overall, was decidedly pro-Trump, according to U.S. intelligence agencies.
This was the joint conclusion of the CIA, FBI and NSA in January 2017: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.”
Trump's and Goldman's tweets ignore this essential context.
Notice how Goldman begins one of his tweets with a general statement (“Most of the coverage of Russian meddling involves their attempt to effect the outcome of the 2016 US election”) then presents a very specific statement as if it were a counter: “I have seen all of the Russian ads and I can say very definitively that swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.”
Trump then isolated the second statement.
Yet the second statement actually does not undercut the first. That one piece of Russia's influence campaign, Facebook ads, focused on political divisions does not mean that the balance of the campaign was not intended to help Trump. The U.S. intelligence report concluded that other Russian activities, including cyberattacks and propaganda spread by Kremlin publications RT and Sputnik, clearly favored Trump.
The president, it seems, would like voters to believe that Facebook ads prove Russia was not really working to elect him. In reality, the ads prove no such thing.