Data that may have proved critical to investigations into Russia-funded political ads appears to have been tossed by Facebook and Twitter into the proverbial shredder.
Hillary Clinton stands with President Barack Obama during an election eve rally on November 7, 2016. (Photo: Getty)
Both platforms have deleted data that researchers say is crucial to understanding the motives and impact behind social media propaganda that targeted American voters last year. In Twitter's case, information tied to the Russian influence campaign was reportedly scrubbed per a company policy requiring all user data to be expunged once the corresponding accounts are no more.
Facebook, however, has instead blamed a "bug".
Over the past month, Congressional probes into potential Kremlin-backed misinformation campaigns have largely turned to the social networks, where loads of cash were spent by Russian trolls on ads targeting American voters. This week, House lawmakers announced they intend to publish the Russian-bought ads posted to Facebook once the company scrubs them of personally identifiable information.
The Washington Post reported Thursday that Facebook scrubbed all of its data related to the Russian-bought ads shortly after a social media analyst had determined the company likely underreported the ads' reach.
Facebook recently disclosed that the ads reached as many as 10 million Americans before and after the November 8 presidential election; however, the researcher, Jonathan Albright, believes the ads had reached "at least double that," and potentially more.
Facebook took action after Albright's research was published by correcting what it called a "bug," which it said had given Albright and other researchers unintended access to cached information about the ads through an analytics tool called CrowdTangle. Thousands of posts were deleted. The decision led to allegations in the Post that Facebook may have been acting on its own behalf to conceal the true reach of the ads.
Around 470 Facebook accounts have been tied to well-known propaganda farm based in St. Petersburg, the so-called Internet Research Agency, which reportedly went dark just after the election. Before Facebook deleted the data, Albright determined that merely six of those pages had actually generated 19.1 million Facebook "interactions," i.e., shares, likes, and comments. That same content had been shared roughly 340 million times. A fake Facebook page that had disguised itself as an actual American Muslim Group had 71.4 million shares alone.
Of course, the number of interactions does not indicate the number of users, as the same users may have liked or shared multiple posts. Unfortunately, it seems the public will have no further opportunity to verify Facebook's 10 million figure, since it moved so quickly to delete any trace of the data supporting it.
Similarly, Twitter has reportedly erased a vast amount of data that may have been useful to understanding the propaganda war surrounding the election. Politico reports that Twitter deleted the data -- perhaps inadvertently -- in accordance with a policy meant to ensure its users' privacy in the event an account is voluntarily deleted. The company is now reportedly scurrying to determine whether the information can be recovered, though it has not publicly speculated one way or the other.
Twitter's efforts to provide lawmakers with evidence of the Russian influence campaign was strongly criticised by US senator Mark Warner, the House Intelligence Committee's ranking Democrat, after a closed-door meeting two weeks ago. Warner expressed disappointment after learning that Twitter's investigation seemed solely based on data already produced by Facebook.
Of the 470 accounts Facebook identified, Twitter reported 22 of them had corresponding accounts involved in propaganda efforts targeting US voters. But that appeared to be the extent of Twitter's research into the matter -- and that, Warner said, was "inadequate on almost every level."
As campaigns for the 2018 midterm US election campaigns prepare to kick off, lawmakers are racing against the clock to uncover the impact of social media propaganda, as well as determine what, if anything, can be done to prevent it. Some legislators have demanded action on the part of the Federal Election Commission, asking for new rules that would require disclosures on political ads run on social media; others have turned to drafting legislation.
Meanwhile, voters in Europe this year have witnessed the same form of election interference: 30,000 fake Facebook accounts were deleted ahead of elections in France, as well as "tens of thousands" in Germany.