Russian-backed content may have reached 126 million on Facebook

Devin Coldewey
Whether an elected official is school board member in a small town or a U.S. Senator representing an entire state, constructive dialogue enables those leaders to engage the people they serve.

Facebook has reportedly upped its estimate of how much content was produced by Russian-backed actors during the election and how widely that content was seen. According to prepared remarks due to be presented tomorrow but acquired by the Wall Street Journal today, the company estimates 80,000 pieces of content may have been viewed by a total of 126 million people.

Previous estimates included only the 3,000 ads from 470 separate accounts associated with Russian "entity" the Internet Research Agency. But organic posts, images, events, and other things also matter, not just ads — so Facebook was asked to include these as well.

The resulting numbers aren't pretty, though it must be said that with engagement on Facebook, the numbers are astronomical to begin with, so even tiny fractions of overall activity end up with 9 or 10 figures.

That's not to say that reaching 126 million people is a trivial task; you could spend a lot of money and not get close to that. That's where networks of bots and fake accounts come in. By juicing the ads, posts, and so on with likes, shares, and tags, bot networks would have been crucial in getting these pieces of content onto more news feeds. In fact, the leaked remarks put the original reach at 29 million users, meaning sharing mechanisms more than quadrupled the number who potentially saw the content.

The remarks in which these numbers appeared are supposed to be delivered by Facebook's General Counsel, Colin Stretch, on the Senate's judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism.

Twitter and Google will be represented as well. Twitter is expected to announce that the number of Russia-linked accounts associated with election interference is not 200 but 2,700, according to documents acquired by Recode, and that together they tweeted some 1.4 million times about the election. Google is also bringing new numbers to the meeting, which were acquired by the New York Times — but the engagement levels are orders of magnitude smaller.

Facebook has already admitted failure to some degree in allowing these ads to have been shown, and has pledged a variety of countermeasures. I've asked the company for comment and more details on the numbers above, and will update this post accordingly if I hear back.