Facebook has said ads bought by Russian operatives reached 10 million of its users. But does that include everyone reached by the information operation? Couldn’t the Russians also have created simple — and free — Facebook posts and hoped they went viral? And if so, how many times were these messages seen by Facebook’s massive user base? The answers to those questions, which social media analyst Jonathan Albright studied for a research document he posted online Thursday, are: No. Yes. And hundreds of millions — perhaps many billions — of times. “The primary push to influence wasn’t necessarily through paid advertising,” said Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “The best way to to understand this from a strategic perspective is organic reach.”
In other words, to understand Russia’s meddling in the U.S. election, the frame should not be the reach of the 3,000 ads that Facebook handed over to Congress and that were bought by a single Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency. Instead, the frame should be the reach of all the activity of the Russian-controlled accounts — each post, each “like,” each comment and also all of the ads. Looked at this way, the picture shifts dramatically. It is bigger — much bigger — but also somewhat different and more subtle than generally portrayed.
Albright, who also is a faculty associate at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, has been studying fake news and Russian propaganda for months. And over the past week, as the names of some of the 470 Russian-bought pages and accounts have trickled out in news reports, he has been using a Facebook-owned analytics tool, called CrowdTangle, to measure the Russian campaign and also has downloaded the most recent 500 posts for each of them.