FiRe 2017: Big Brother and Mother Russia

By Ethan Annis

From left to right: Ed Butler, Berit Anderson

In an early morning session Ed Butler, Senior Broadcast Journalist for the BBCinterviewed Berit Anderson, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of, regarding the potential for computational propaganda. The session quickly turned to the specific example of Russia and their influence on the 2016 US presidential election.

“Their (Russia’s) goal is to undermine NATO and democracy, and the best way to do that is by making America look like a hot mess,” she said.

Anderson started out by talking about Facebook and the research that her company, has done on their newsfeed algorithms. Anderson claims that her team has reverse engineered the process, and that two single engineers with cleverly written code would be able to change the news feed algorithms without anyone else in Facebook knowing.

Anderson explained that these newsfeed algorithms, along with SEO manipulation, Facebook political dark ads, and fake Facebook and Twitter accounts make up the sophisticated Russian manipulation of American voters. Each of these tools is used differently to influence the way Americans think and vote. Anderson shared that Russia has used their Facebook and Twitter bots to influence multiple democratic events over the last few years. A group called Cambridge Analytica discovered that the same group of bots was activated and deactivated between the Arab Spring, the Brexit campaign, and the US presidential election.

Anderson pointed out that Russia takes exceptionally divisive issues and feed each side material in order to split the voters even further. They could even have had the capability of singling out specific zip codes in swing states and swing districts. Anderson called Russia’s strategy “pretty smart.”

To finish the session, Butler wondered what, if anything, these social media platforms are doing in order to stop what is happening. Anderson replied that Facebook has made small attempts to make political advertising more transparent but that Facebook and Twitter have overall been very unresponsive to the situation.