If you're an American high school grad of a certain age, you probably have a friend or two on Facebook like Melvin Redick. Redick promotes himself as a proud graduate of Philadelphia's elite Central High School and a Philly native, a salt-of-the-earth guy who hung around Pennsylvania to attend Indiana University and take up residence in Harrisburg. Most of his pictures on the social-media site are adorable shots of him frolicking with his grade-school-age daughter.
But Melvin Redick doesn't have anything to say about his personal life, or his alma mater on Olney Avenue. When he showed up on Facebook late last spring, it was all about his rancor toward Hillary Clinton and his rants about U.S. policy toward Russia.
"These guys show hidden truth about Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and other leaders of the US," Redick wrote on Facebook on June 8, 2016, promoting the very first site hosting documents that were illegally hacked from Democratic Party higher-ups during last year's campaign. "Visit #DCLeaks website. It's really interesting!"
Here's something else really interesting: Your all-American high school chum "Melvin Redick" seems not to actually exist, according to a groundbreaking investigative piece published late last week by the New York Times. There's no record, according to the Paper of Record, that Redick ever attended Central or IUP, and those happy pictures with his daughter appear to have been taken in Brazil. The apparently not-real Redick showed up on social media, the newspaper found, around the same time as "Katharine Fulton" and "Alice Donovan" — all of whom trashed Clinton, praised the campaign of now-President Trump and steered American Facebook users to hacked emails and documents, all in a brand of mangled English that sounds a little like the old cartoon character Boris Badenov. And none of whom seems to be a real human being living in the United States.
It feels like a pilot for a less-interesting sequel on FX — The Fake Americans. But the role that the not-Philadelphian not-Melvin and his pals played in the 2016 elections (and may still be carrying out in American politics even now) isn't so much entertaining as alarming. In recent weeks, a raft of new disclosures — each more stunning than the last — has made it clear that a Russia-financed-and-run operation to tilt the 2016 presidential election to Trump had many more tentacles than we hapless real Americans had first realized. And it's increasingly clear that born-in-the-USA social media sites like Twitter and, especially, Facebook were at the core of the scheme.
What have we learned?
It sounds bad, but don't just listen to me. Listen to Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of Russia's parliament, who told Russian television over the weekend that U.S. "intelligence missed it when Russian intelligence stole the president of the United States." I'm sure that Nikonov heard later from Vladimir Putin or Putin's henchmen that you're not supposed to say that kind of thing out loud.
Now, I realize what some readers are saying at this point. Some will surely ask whether any of this matters. Sure, it's a political "dirty trick," … but isn't being a political dirty trickster the world's second-oldest profession? And aren't some of these Russian efforts to aid Trump more pathetic — even comical — than effective? After all, there's no evidence that a single person showed up to the anti-Muslim rally in Twin Falls, and who takes seriously postings that call Hillary Clinton "the president of the Democratic Party," for example?
But, no, this matters. A lot.
For one thing, the Russian effort to run a negative campaign against Clinton and promote Trump is a prima facie campaign contribution and, thus, a flagrant violation of U.S. election law that explicitly bars foreign donations. The $100,000 ad purchase was surpassed by an "in-kind" contribution of troll labor worth hundreds of thousands of dollars more — so we're starting out with the biggest foreign-campaign-influence case in years.
And once we acknowledge that, the next question — and the one that is obviously of great interest to special prosecutor Robert Mueller — is what did the president's campaign know, and when did it know it? How did the Russians know which messages to promote and, more important, which voters to target in which American states (like the Pennsylvania of "Melvin Redick") without help from Trump insiders? What was the role of the data operation run by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the shadowy data firm called Cambridge Analytica, founded by pro-Trump hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, which worked for Trump, the totally unexpected passage of Brexit, and the deeply tainted incumbent in Kenya's discredited recent election?
Let's also acknowledge this: While it's hard to quantify, "fake news" and hacked documents clearly mattered in an election that was essentially decided by 70,000 voters in three key states. How many young or nonwhite voters, bombarded with negativity including Facebook ads that were paid for by Russia, were discouraged enough by the parade of dim headlines that they stayed home last Nov. 8? These questions haven't been answered — even as the evidence of coordinated and widespread Russian meddling gets worse and worse.
And while the onus for this scandal falls on Russia and anyone with Team Trump who might have coordinated with a rival foreign power, let's not give Facebook a free pass. The reality is that billionaire Mark Zuckerberg's joint has a lot to answer for. The social network started with abject dishonesty — insisting as recently as June that the Silicon Valley firm had not found any evidence of Russian operatives buying election-related ads on its platform — and now has switched over to half-confessional gobbledygook.
It's long past time for Facebook to give a full and completely transparent accounting — to Congress, to Mueller and other investigators, and most importantly to the American people — of anything and everything the company knows about how Russia tried to use social media to manipulate our election. After that, Facebook and other internet giants need to take more seriously the significant role — not just a harmless blip, as once claimed — that "fake news" and other dishonest uses of social media are playing in modern politics in the United States and around the world — and begin to refocus on how technology can instead be a force for good in a fast-disintegrating world.