Facebook, Russia and the US elections - what you need to know

Facebook’s disclosure of a likely Russia-linked advertising campaign appears plausible. The revelation raises new questions about the Trump campaign and highlights an old misunderstanding by the Kremlin.

How credible is Facebook's revelation of a possibly Russian-backed political ad campaign in the US?

The information that an operation likely based in Russia was behind ad buys driving politically divisive messages on Facebook in a two-year period around the US election stems only from the social network itself and so far has not been independently verified. However, Russia observers consider Facebook's revelation plausible as it tallies with known efforts by the Kremlin to try and influence election outcomes.     

It also fits with:

- Old-style Soviet attempts to undermine and cause chaos in the political systems of its adversaries

- Alleged interference in the US election 

- The Kremlin's "general playbook of trying to use online information to influence politics in other countries," says Joshua Tucker, the director of the Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.

According to a Pew study from last year, 68 percent of all Americans and 79 percent of all Americans who are online use Facebook. The world's largest social network is increasingly emerging as a dominant information hub which is why it would make sense for Russia, or any other actor intent on influencing the US election, to target American voters there.

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2013: Mr Trump goes to Russia

June 18, 2013. Donald Trump tweeted: "The Miss Universe Pageant will be broadcast live from MOSCOW, RUSSIA on November 9. A big deal that will bring our countries together!" He later added: "Do you think Putin will be going - if so, will he become my new best friend?" October 17, 2013 Trump tells chat show host David Letterman he has conducted "a lot of business with the Russians."

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September 2015: Hacking allegations raised

An FBI agent told a tech-support contractor at the Democratic National Committee it may have been hacked. On May 18, 2016, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, said there were "some indications" of cyberattacks aimed at the presidential campaigns. On June 14, 2016 the DNC announced it had been the victim of an attack by Russian hackers.

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July 20, 2016: Mr Kislyak enters the picture

Senator Jeff Sessions - an early Trump endorser who led his national security advisory committee - met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and a group of other ambassadors at a Republican National Convention event.

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July 22, 2016: Assange thickens the plot

Julian Assange's WikiLeaks published 20,000 emails stolen from the DNC, appearing to show a preference for Hillary Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders.

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July 25, 2016: Cometh the hour, Comey the man

The FBI announced it was investigating the DNC hack saying "a compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously."

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November 8, 2016: Trump elected

Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. On November 9, the Russian parliament burst into applause at the news.

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November 10, 2016: Team Trump denies Russia link

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov said there "were contacts" between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the election campaign. The Trump campaign issued a firm denial.

Politics

November 18, 2016: Flynn appointed

Trump named General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. The former Defence Intelligence Agency chief was a top foreign policy adviser in Trump's campaign. Flynn resigned in February after failing to disclose full details of his communication with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

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January 26, 2017: Yates - 'The center cannot hold'

Acting attorney general Sally Yates told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn made false statements regarding his calls with Kislyak. On January 30 Trump fired Yates for refusing to enforce his travel ban, which was later blocked by federal courts.

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March 2, 2017: Sessions recuses himself

Trump said he had "total confidence" in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

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March 20, 2017: FBI examines Trump-Kremlin links

FBI Director James Comey confirmed before the House Select Committee on Intelligence that the FBI was investigating possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Politics

May 9, 2017: Trump sacks Comey

In a letter announcing the termination, Trump wrote: "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau."

Politics

May 17, 2017: Mueller appointed special counsel

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to look into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

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August 2017: FBI seizes documents from Manafort

Shortly after Mueller convenes a grand jury for the investigation, the FBI seizes documents from one of Paul Manafort’s properties as part of a raid for Mueller’s probe. The former Trump campaigner manager stepped down in August 2016 after allegations surfaced that he had received large payments linked to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.

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September 2017: Trump Jr.'s talks to Senate committee

Donald Trump Jr. tells the Senate Judiciary Committee he has not colluded with a foreign government. The closed-door interview relates to his June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, which was also attended by his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then campaign manager Paul Manafort. Trump Jr.’s emails, however, suggest the meeting was supposed to produce dirt on Clinton.

Politics

October 2017: Internet giants allege Russian interference

Facebook, Twitter and Google reportedly tell US media they have evidence that Russian operatives exploited platforms to spread disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election. The three companies are expected to appear before a Senate Intelligence Committee in November.

Why is this comparatively small effort important given previous scandals about Russian meddling in the US election?

The $100,000 allegedly spent by the Russian-backed operation on 3,000 ads connected to less than 500 accounts is miniscule in comparison to the nearly $1 billion the Federal Election Commission says was spent on the US election campaign.

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But it is impossible to know whether this alleged effort was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Russian ad buys or related activities on social media platforms or whether it was simply a test balloon to see what could be done and whether it worked.

What the experts say:

- "In no way shape or form could we call this the ceiling on what may have been activities designed to influence opinion about candidates or issues during the election,"  said Joshua Tucker, director of the Jordan Center for Advanced Study of Russia at New York University.

- "The reason why you run an add on social media is because you can target it to someone in Detroit who is upset about the oil industry and trade issues and you can make sure they see the ad on trade issues," explained Tucker.

- "Most importantly, it reveals a level of sophistication about US public opinion that is pretty striking," said Kimberly Marten, professor of political science at Barnard College and director of the US-Russia program at Columbia University.

If the Kremlin was involved, would this represent a big win for Moscow?

Arguments in favor: 

- If the Facebook disclosure is true, then it certainly highlights how Russia has not only the know-how and the means, but also the political will to try to influence election outcomes in a country like the United States.

- Such a brazen and sophisticated effort would probably not have been thought possible by many Americans prior to last year's election.  

Arguments against:

- Russia has figured out how to try and influence public opinion and the presidential election, but has failed to grasp that the Congress, and also the judiciary, can curb the president's actions.

- "It's a basic problem that Russian intelligence and Russian analysis of the United States has had for many years dating back to Soviet times: They never understood the role of Congress in the US political system," according to Marten.

What does this mean for the investigation into the Trump campaign's potential connections with Russia?

That is the big and so far unanswered question. The Facebook revelation certainly raises the temperature again for the investigation by special prosecutor Robert Mueller into possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.

"It absolutely raises the question of where are the alleged Russian operators getting the information from about who should be targeted with what types of issues?" said Tucker.

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Focus on Europe | 13.07.2017

Russian hackers to target German elections

Does Facebook's revelation have any implication for the upcoming German election?

Yes. Russia reportedly tried to interfere in the US and French election, and so Germany, which has also been allegedly targeted before, should be prepared as well.

Read more: Hackers find flaws in German election vote-counting software

"It would be very surprising if they did not try it in Germany, especially because Putin's career history is centered on Dresden and he is a fluent German speaker," said Marten.