Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Russian Interference, Viral Sharing, and Friends Lying to Friends on Social Media in the 2016 Elections

Posted on | October 5, 2017 | Comments Off on Russian Interference, Viral Sharing, and Friends Lying to Friends on Social Media in the 2016 Elections

As discussed previously, social media is now a central part of modern democracies and their election processes. This was touted in the Obama presidential election in 2008 but became even more evident in the 2016 U.S. election, notably for unexpected 304-232 electoral college victory by Donald Trump. The real estate magnate and reality show TV star occupied the White House in January 2017, despite 2.8 million more US citizens voting for Hillary Clinton.

In this post, I look at some of the influence by Russia and other foreign entities on the recent election as investigated and reported on by the Mueller Special Counsel’s Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election. My main concern, however, is the viral spreading of “memes” on social media by compliant voters who fail to read or make critical distinctions about the posts and articles they share with their “friends.” These collaborators contribute to the spreading of “fake news” from organizations like the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the notorious Russian “troll farm.” Emotionally disturbing messages emerged from both political polarities though and were meant to manipulate the behaviors and emotions of unsuspecting people on various social media.

It is likely that Congress and the press, as well as the public, will be parsing this phenomenon over the next couple of months, if not years, as we all strive to understand where democracy is heading in the age of social media in politics.

In early September 2017, Facebook released results of a preliminary investigation looking into possible Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. They announced that approximately US$100,000 in ad spending were associated with Russian profiles during the period from June 2015 to May 2017. They later announced to Congress that over 3,000 Facebook ads were believed to be from Russian sources. How powerful were these ads? How were they aided by overzealous Sanders’ supporters? Were shares by Trump supporters significant in influencing independent and GOP voters?

Did Russian operatives and agents carefully target the supporters of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, and Donald Trump with emotionally and politically charged ads? And how many of the targeted citizens “shared” Russian produced propaganda over Facebook and other social media to their friends and others on social media? The controversy has positioned Mark Zuckerberg, the guy in the brown tee shirt below, and CEO of the $500 billion social media giant, as possibly the most important person in the world when it comes to the future of global democracy.

Zuckerberg is being proactive as some lawmakers are proposing to regulate social media by requiring all major digital media platforms with 1,000,000 or more users to monitor and keep public records of ad buys of more than $10,000. These digital platforms, as well as broadcast, cable and satellite providers, would also have to make reasonable efforts to ensure that ads and other electioneering communications are not purchased by foreign nationals, either directly or indirectly.

Some major questions to be addressed when it comes to the election interference issue are:

Who was providing the demographic data for targeting specific potential voters on the US side? We know that key swing states, Michigan and Wisconsin were targeted and Trump carried Michigan by 10,700 votes and Wisconsin by 22,748 votes. These were extremely narrow margins. Add Pennsylvania’s 44,000 voter margin, and the election goes to Trump by a mere 78,000 majority.

What keywords were they using to identify susceptible targets? For example, “Jew hater” and the N-word have actually been used to target specific audiences. Do they use specific words, phrases, or images that incite hate or a sense of unfairness? The Black Lives movement has been a particularly important target as Google’s investigation of foreign intervention found.

What foreign entities were involved and how extensive were the social media ad buys? What were they saying and what kind of images are being produced? Who was producing and designing the manufactured and posted “memes”? Memes are designed communications that combine provocative imagery with text that hooks the viewer. These captioned photos are shared easily on social media and are also associated with stories on websites. PropOrNot’s monitoring report identified more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the 2016 election season. They had an audience of over 15 million Americans. PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted on Facebook were viewed more than 213 million times.[1]

Even more significant are the viral metrics that characterize social media. Who was sharing this information and how dynamic was the virality and network effects? In other words, how fast and wide were the messages being spread from individual to individual? This is similar to word of mouth (WOM) in the nonmedia world, and it is highly prized because it shows active and emotional involvement. What can create a “snowball effect” that multiplies your post reach to friends of friends and beyond. With 2 billion active users a month, Facebook is clearly a concern as are other platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.

social media metrics

An interesting case dealt with a fake news story about paid protesters being bused to an Anti-Trump demonstration in Austin, Texas. That story started on Twitter with hashtags #fakeprotests and #trump2016 and was quickly shared some 16,000 times and also migrated to Facebook where it was shared more than 350,000 times.

So we are entering into an age when social media metrics are not just crucial for modern advertising and e-commerce but essential for political communication as well. We will see an increasing need for skilled digital media analysts that measure social media metrics ranging from simple counting measures of actions like check-ins, click-through rates, likes, impressions, numbers of followers, visits, etc. to other important contextual metrics including conversation volume, engagement, sentiment ratios, conversion rates, end action rates, and brand perception lifts.[3]

Countries interfering in the elections of other countries is not a new phenomenon. But rarely have they been able to enlist so many unwitting collaborators. As we continue to move into the era of cybernetic democracy, a new vigilance is required at many levels. National and local governments need to be wary, social media platforms like Facebook need to review content and sources, and users also need to take responsibility for reading what is being passed around and using ethics-based judgment before spreading rumors and materials that incite hate and social discord.


[1] PropOrNot’s monitoring report investigates social media stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaigns.
[2] ThinkProgress recently began a series investigating foreign influence on social media. Founded in 2005, ThinkProgress is funded by the Center for American Progress Action and covers the connections and interactions between politics, policy, culture, and social justice.
[3] I got my start in teaching social media metrics with John Lovett’s (2011) Social Media Metrics Secrets John Wiley and Sons. It is still highly relevant.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, Ph.D. is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. From 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea, Marist College in New York, Victoria University in New Zealand, and St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas where he keeps his American home. He spent 6 years as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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    Professor at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea since 2016. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, digital economics, and strategic communications.

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