The ongoing investigation into Russia’s alleged interference with the 2016 presidential election is finally at the place where Senate Intelligence Committee members are ready to begin releasing their findings. Among the most troubling revelations is the extent to which Russian groups were able to use Facebook to target specific segments of the American population with their propaganda. Over the course of 2015 and 2016, Russian groups spent roughly $100,000 to buy some three thousand ads. Facebook estimates that around ten million people saw these advertisements.
As CNN reports, Facebook allows advertisers to have access to user information in order to target their messages to a specific audience. It’s possible to make selections based on gender, location, age, and interests. For example, by targeting women aged twenty-two to forty-five who live in Wisconsin and like Donald Trump, advertisers could focus their message on the roughly 130,000 Facebook users who fit that description. These search parameters also grant access to the other interests that this segment of people has in common.
Over the course of roughly fifteen months leading up to the 2016 election, Russian agencies used this information to specifically target groups across the country, including those in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, where the president won by a combined 33,400 votes, with ads deemed likely to advance their goals.
That said, it’s impossible to know to what extent these ads impacted the outcome of the election. For example, those targeted because they already supported Trump were likely to vote for him anyways. It’s also important to note that, while the Senate Committee continues to investigate possible links, there is no evidence that the president or members of his team were directly involved with the Russian efforts.
What’s more important today, however, is the fact that the same tactics could be employed by anyone to influence next year’s midterm congressional elections. And as Donie O’Sullivan and Eric Bradner warn, one of the most potent ways to spread false information and damaging stories via social media is to use the very same selection tools outlined above to promote stories that strike at people’s fears and doubts.
For example, if supporters of a particular party “read in their local newspaper that their candidate is struggling among males in their twenties in a particular county, or that their candidate’s opponent needs to hold on to women with college degrees, it’s possible to target groups like that specifically.” By promoting stories and sending ads targeted at such groups, people can wield great influence over key segments of the population without having to adhere to the litany of rules and regulations that govern more traditional media.
And there’s not much we can do to stop them. The only real solution is for people to be more discerning when it comes to how they digest the news.
That should come naturally to Christians, however, considering Scripture instructs us to approach everything about the world around us with that same sort of discernment. John warns us to test everything we hear from others to see if it agrees with God’s word (1 John 4:1). Paul prayed that we would approach our lives with a love defined by the necessary knowledge and discernment to maintain our witness and exude the righteousness of Christ (Philippians 1:9–11). And James reminds us that all we must do to receive this kind of wisdom is faithfully ask the Father “who gives generously to all” (James 1:5).
If the Russians did interfere with the 2016 elections, they simply joined the ranks of Americans who have been attempting to do the same since the dawn of our political system. People have always tried to sway the opinions of others, whether on issues of politics, religion, or any number of other subjects. And they’ll continue to do so because it works.
Scripture’s solution, however, could not be clearer. Will you practice it today?