BREAKING NEWS FROM THE NEW COLD WAR: FACEBOOK ADS WORK

BREAKING NEWS FROM THE NEW COLD WAR: FACEBOOK ADS WORK

Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Facebook is under scrutiny for (among other things) allegedly selling political ads to the Russians, allowing people to set up fake accounts, and not properly monitoring the content posted by “fake” profiles. Wait. What?

The meta-country of Facebook
With a population of over 2 billion registered users, the meta-country of Facebook is the largest assemblage of digital citizens on earth. But make no mistake, Facebook is not a democracy; it is a for-profit corporation with a fiduciary duty to its shareholders. To that end, the proletariat is lorded over by an all-powerful algorithm that is continuously tuned to keep Facebook users inside their comfort zones.

The aphorism “The greatest minds of our time are busy figuring out the best way to get us to click on an ad” is objectively true. You will find some of the world’s smartest people working at Facebook.

In practice, there are far too many things happening on Facebook for humans to deal with, so the company has designed sophisticated machine learning and AI systems to keep you engaged, scrolling, and clicking. If you like or click on something, Facebook’s algorithms learn to feed you more of the same. It is Facebook’s singular mission. The more you engage with content on Facebook, the more likely you are to do something that will earn the company money.

The 21st-Century Cold War
The Russian Federation and the United States have been engaged in a Cold War since the end of World War II. Information warfare (propaganda) is not new, but weaponized social media is (relatively speaking), and the general public is just starting to understand its potential.

There is an apocryphal story that tells of NASA engineers spending millions of dollars to develop a pen that would work in zero gravity. Faced with the same problem, Russian engineers gave their cosmonauts pencils. This tale is not true, but it is oracular. Technically hacking Facebook would be exceptionally hard to accomplish, but social engineering a targeted propaganda campaign using Facebook and other social media platforms is as simple as using a pencil. This kind of social engineering has another name: Advertising.

Either advertising works or it doesn’t
Department store and advertising pioneer John Wanamaker famously said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half.” This was absolutely true when he said it back in the late 1870s. It is not true today.

Today, Martech (for marketing technology) has all but replaced traditional advertising as the best way to get your message to a targeted audience. (I’m going to take some heat for saying this—it’s heresy, but the numbers don’t lie.) In most cases, campaign results can be accurately measured. And you guessed it: Google and Facebook are the two premier providers of paid targeted messaging.

Socially engineered social media weapons
Everything you need to influence an election is available online. Here’s how you do it:

1. Understand the demographic makeup of your target audience.

2. Design targeted content and post it on blogs and websites.

3. Design targeted messaging (IAB standard digital ad units, Google keyphrase-based copy, etc.) Test, fail and learn until you get your messaging right.

4. Create a significant number of social media accounts to use to propagate your propaganda.

5. Program some bots to post your propaganda from the hundreds or thousands of “fake” social media accounts you set up or purchased (yes, there are companies that make a living doing this).

6. Design and purchase a geo-targeted messaging campaign.

7. Evaluate the results of your efforts with the analytics provided by the digital platforms you have purchased your media from.

8. Test, fail and learn. Revise your messaging and adjust your digital media budget accordingly.

9. Go back to step 2 and repeat until the desired results have been achieved.

This is about as straightforward as a digital media buy gets. If you do a good job, the only way anyone will know if you or your content are real or fake is if they spend significant resources analyzing what’s going on. You can easily tell if you agree or disagree with the content, but once real people start sharing, commenting on, and reposting content, it is exceptionally hard to tell where it came from or whether it is real or fake.