Last week, as Facebook testified before Congress about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, committees released the first batch of Kremlin-linked ads that ran on the platform. They were much weirder than anyone expected. There was plenty of straightforward political button-pushing, of course — the groups put forth both faux Black Lives Matter and gun rights campaigns — but some of the ads were harder to explain. One ad put forward a Speedo-clad Bernie Sanders, lifted from a real-life picture book. Another showed a Hillary-supporting Satan preparing to arm-wrestle Jesus Christ.
This is not what we expect from a foreign propaganda campaign. There is no call to vote for a given candidate, and despite widespread concerns over fake news, there’s no clear effort to spread false information. Russia experts have always said that the country’s influence doesn’t look like traditional propaganda, but even so, these ads seemed unusual. While Facebook, Twitter, and Google confront hard questions about their role in Russian election interference, the techniques in play seem more important than ever. So why were the Russian ads so strange?
While many of the ads seem amateurish, some experts see a sophisticated understanding of what travels on social media. Laura Rosenberger, who studies Russian influence operations as director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, says weirdness can be a natural result of narrow targeting. As a given message speaks to a smaller group, it ends up more bewildering to everyone else. “The ads you categorize as ‘bizarre’ could have currency with very narrow groups,” says Rosenberger. “One of Russia’s goals is to push groups to extremes, and so some of what we are seeing is likely aimed at encouraging the most radical elements of certain groups, or pushing groups in a more radical direction.”
In the case of Speedo Bernie, that’s consistent with the targeting information included as part of the release. You might think Speedo Bernie was a false flag, distributed to alienate evangelical groups who might be curious about Sanders — but in fact, it was more straightforward than that. The ad was targeted at Facebook users interested in LGBT rights and either of the two leading Democratic candidates, exactly the people most likely to love Speedo Bernie.
At the same time, the ads don’t seem to be about news. False information continues to be a problem on Google and Facebook — but the released ads suggest the Russian operations weren’t about information at all. A report published last week by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center pointed to James Carey’s ritual theory of communication sharing as a better model for the ads. According to that theory, the function of news is as much about drama as information, giving readers “a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.” Satan arm-wrestling Jesus doesn’t tell you any new information, but to an evangelical audience, it might offer a compelling way to think about political news — particularly if you see your friends and neighbors sharing it.
According to Claire Wardle, who co-authored the report, the ritual model is the best tool we have for understanding why certain things play better on social media. “The [Russian ad-makers] understand social media better than a lot of advertising agencies,” Wardle told me. “They understand it needs to be authentic and it needs to be humorous. Either that or it needs to be dark and make you angry.”
The ads also seem amateurish, full of bad photoshops or sloppy imagery — but for observers, that was a sign of someone who knows how to game the algorithm. Caroline Jack, who studies misinformation at Data & Society, saw Speedo Bernie’s casual artistry as a play for shares. “This is such an unusual image that it’s a good way to catch people’s attention,” Jack says. “The people who ran that page are trying to get engagement.”
The result is a surprisingly familiar technique. The ads were designed to be shareable, engaging, and targeted at specific groups — like nearly everything else in your Facebook feed. We’re still only seeing a tiny part of the Russian effort, and it’s plausible there are more alarming parts of the campaign that are yet to be discovered or released. But so far, the Russian influence operation seems to have been using many of the same tactics as most advertisers, even if it was using them toward less straightforward ends.
That may not be a comforting thought. Hossein Derakhshan, who coauthored the Shorenstein report, says there are many other groups using the same tactics as the Russian trolls — and many of them should be just as troubling. “All kinds of groups are treating communication as a ritual, and they all want to empower their own narratives,” says Derakhshan. “We’re just looking at one fraction of them now.”