I think we’re all pretty aware of how much of a role “fake news” (the actual fake news, not the factual news that Donald Trump calls “fake news” now) played in last year’s election. Fictitious stories, or posts that mixed fact and fiction dominated social media last year — stories about John Podesta and Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizzaria, or bogus stories about Hillary Clinton’s health, which gained so much momentum on social media that it attracted attention from the mainstream media.
The thing about those stories, however, is that their virality was not organic. The stories spread quickly throughout social media because of Russian bots, which amplified these stories. It wasn’t enough that outlets like Breitbart and Inforwars made up stories; the Russians moved those stories along through the use of both bots and hundreds of operatives in St. Petersburg who posted comments on social media, retweeted and shared these stories, and otherwise spread the lies.
It led to record traffic for those sites; in fact, during one month, Breitbart received 300 million page views, propelled in part by bots.
McClatchy is now reporting that, as part of the FBI’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians, it’s also looking into Breitbart, Infowars, and other far right sites to see if they did more than just benefit from the Russian trolling campaign. They want to know if any of those sites actually coordinated with the Russians to disseminate these false stories.
Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as “bots,” to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.
Investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.
The investigation of the bot-engineered traffic, which appears to be in its early stages, is being driven by the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, whose inquiries rarely result in criminal charges and whose main task has been to reconstruct the nature of the Kremlin’s cyber attack and determine ways to prevent another.
Whether the news sites coordinated or not, it’s clear that they were instrumental in Trump’s win, and that they benefited from millions of more page views. In fact, this should be investigated by more than the FBI; ad networks like Google Adsense and Facebook’s Instant Articles should also be investigating, because if much of the traffic was bot generated, Facebook and Google likely paid out millions of dollars for nonexistent readers.
In related news, over 1500 online advertisers have also blocked their ads from appearing on Brietbart, but advertisers are still seeking more control over where their ads appear, because it is notoriously difficult to prevent ads from appearing on certain sites because of the programmatic buying market. Those companies whose ads do inadvertently filter onto Breitbart often find themselves deluged with tweets from advocacy groups alerting them to those ads. At this point, Breitbart seems to be fueled by low-quality, low paying ads, which at the very least hurts the site’s bottom line because no major companies want to be associated with it.