In the spirit of being transparent, I have never been a fan of Senator Burr dating back to the introduction of his encryption legislation with Dianne Feinstein in the spring of 2016. While his Bill never made it through Congress, it demonstrated a dangerous level of incompetence in regards to technological literacy and begged the question how someone whom knew so little about the subject could possibly fancy himself worthy enough to write new laws Governing it?
Regardless, these days Richard Burr finds himself leading an investigation to discover the true size and scope of Russia’s alleged interference with the US election of 2016. More specifically, Burr’s committee vows “to get to the bottom” of the use of “Russian propaganda” in the “American” news cycle, which may or may not have influenced voters in the weeks/months leading up to the election.
Before I go any further, you may have just noticed Senator Burr’s counter part, Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, reference a botnet and a string of paid internet trolls which were used to disseminate “propaganda” in certain states before the election. I do not necessarily dispute this evidence and I have written about this subject extensively myself, but I also want to remind Mr. Warner not to be ignorant enough to believe it was just “The Russians” whom were using these sorts of techniques throughout the election season.
For example, Mr. Warner may or may not remember that in the spring of 2016, days before a critical debate with Senator Bernie Sanders, several pro-Sanders social media sites were closed and taken offline by paid internet trolls. What happened was a group of trolls/hackers went around spamming pornography on pro-Sanders social media pages and then logged onto different accounts to report the content to Facebook and Twitter, whom then took down all the pages for hosting inappropriate material.
While there were unsubstantiated reports claiming that Hillary Clinton had paid these people to sabotage momentum for Sanders ahead of the debate, there was a small matter of truth to these claims. As reported by The Los Angeles Times on May 9th 2016, Hillary Clinton did indeed have a super-PAC operating on her behalf, existing specifically to influence information on social media in her favor.
According to the LA Times report, this “multi-million dollar super PAC working with Clinton” existed specifically to “to find and confront social media users who post unflattering messages about the Democratic front-runner.” The Times goes on to note how the group consisted of “former reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers and others,” meant to “produce online counterattacks” and make it appear as though support for Clinton and her policies was “coming organically from people and their social media networks in a groundswell of activism, when in fact it is highly paid and highly tactical.”
As I hope you can see, it was not just “the Russians” or “pro-Republican actors” who were ‘playing dirty,’ using paid social media campaigns and disseminating political propaganda inside the United States during the election season, several parties were involved in all of this – including Democrats. Choosing to only blame a small group of Russians for all of this is dismissive of a much larger problem in general. If you want to learn more about this phenomenon, I invite you to please read the article linked to the Twitter posting above.
With that aside, I want to move on to Mr. Warner’s criticisms of Russian media outlets. You can call me “un-American” if you really want, but I am going to stick up for Russia Today here. I get that it is a state owned newspaper and I have even seen it post some extremely slanted material about Ukraine in the past, but RT really doesn’t do anything much different than many American media outlets do for this country when reporting on international affairs from time to time.
Ever seen Tucker Carlson Tonight or The Sean Hannity Show, they make RT look like saints by comparison. Sputnik on the other hand, completely legitimate to call Russian propaganda – lol.
Moving on, granted not everyone can know everything, I was surprised at how little Senators Warner and Burr seemed to know about “content writing” and how the “news” spreads via search engines. If you watched the short clip at the beginning of this article you saw Senator Warner talk about how Russia Today was able to get their articles at the top of Google’s searches throughout the election, while other media leaders lagged behind. He talks about this as though it is some sort of grand mystery or as if Russia performed an act of internet sorcery to pull it off, when in reality it was simply a result of superior technical strategy.
This particular aspect of his investigation has nothing to do with “Russian hacking” and everything to do with “Search Engine Optimization” and pay-per-click advertising, also known as “Search Engine Marketing.” These practices are also 100% legal and happen to be utilized by every competitive news outlet the world over, Russia Today just does it a little bit differently then other industry leaders in the United States – I’ll explain how momentarily.
Search Engine Optimization is a tricky field to master, but it is a necessity for any website that wants to become successful. Browse through any internet based job search engine right now and you will find a ton of openings with companies offering full time positions dealing specifically with SEO management and content marketing – salaries generally starting around 35k per year.
Companies are willing to pay so much money for SEO because it is virtually impossible for any website to generate revenue without relying on search engines to deliver customers to their site on a regular basis. For example, it is not uncommon for successful sites to receive +70% of their overall website traffic from search engines alone.
For the purposes of keeping this article short, I am not going to get into the specifics of how to build a strong SEO strategy. I bring all of this up because strong SEO is also the fundamental driver behind every successful pay-per-click website. These types of websites are also the primary drivers of fake news in this country and around the world.
Part of the reason Russia Today shows up so high on Google search results is because they freely allow their content to be shared online, unlike their American counter parts. In accordance with the term and conditions of Russia Today, RT allows sites like Alternative Medi4 and others to republish their original content.
That article, published on my site and spread through my Facebook and Twitter feed, was actually originally produced by Russia Today. This is important to understand because if I were to do the same exact thing with an article produced by The New York Times, they would literally sue me Copyright theft. Unlike RT, American news organizations never let anyone republish their original material without paying money for it.
This allows RT’s content to reach a much larger audience and the more people that share and use their material, the more it boosts their digital footprint and overall SEO success. So, as I hope you can see, you cant blame Russian hacking for the fact that some of Russia’s media outlets outperform other industry leaders here in the United States. Blame it on Copyright Law, American corporate greed and Capitalism. If that hurts your feelings, then simply chalk it up to smart internet strategy – take your pick.
Perhaps most importantly, Google Adwords and Google Adsense only accept money from corporations in order to advertise. I know this because I reached out to Google to pay to get Alternative Medi4 featured in their news section on a regular basis, but they wouldn’t accept my money because I wasn’t a registered corporation. So, before you go running after the Russian Government for all of this, you might want to have a serious conversation with Google about how they do business with all of these sites.
To that very point, in response to Senator Warner’s statements on Russia Today, RT responded by telling Warner to “learn how search engines work.”
The last point I want to make here is that you can go ahead and blame Russia for spreading political propaganda in the United States all day long, but it does not take away from the fact that the American people choose to buy/consume all this material in the first place. Even if it is true that Russia disseminated political propaganda to undermine the US election in favor of Donald Trump, Russia did not sell anything the American viewing public did not want to buy themselves.
In this way American society hacked itself and all of this hoopla surrounding Russia is just that.
Fake news, extremist headlines or political propaganda thrive on pay-per-click websites because these websites make money. It is almost a free market and societal problem really, if people stop clicking on crazy and outrageous headlines on the internet, these websites will stop making money and all of these crazy/outrageous/fake news events will start to go away real quick. But that is not what is happening here or what society seems to want to do willingly themselves.
I’m not sure how you go about regulating the morality of browsing habits of consumers in a free market, this is why there is no easy solution to our fake news problem.