It's been less than a year since we all woke up, rubbed our eyes, and realized that the United States of America had elected a blowhard reality show host as President.
It seemed impossible. But that was just the beginning of one unbelievable thing after another.
The suspicions and accusations of Russian interference in American political discourse felt like sour grapes to some, but now we're seeing proof. Last week, the US House Intelligence Committee published a selection of Facebook and Instagram posts and ads
that came from accounts now known to be Russian-controlled.
Most of them speak the language of memes, at least what a "meme" is considered to be in the twentyteens: a captioned image that provokes a strong positive or negative reaction. Many, like the infamous Jesus-boxing-Hillary image above, also had a call-to-action that would help them spread virally.
The memes and other posts are highly-targeted, and many are aimed squarely at the fault lines of American society, both pro- and anti-Trump:
What's the point? Analysts call it Putin's attempt to destabilize the west
, so that allied countries are less able to act against Russian interests. In the case of the USA, the goal was obviously to promote the election of a singularly unqualified presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who may or may not already by compromised by Russian intelligence.
At the same time, look at what's happening to the two major parties in the US: The Democrats lost the election partially due to infighting
, which was additionally fuelled by pro-Sanders Russian ads
, and Republican infighting allowed Trump to emerge triumphant.
As a social (and social media) marketer, I can't help but look at the strategy behind this with a mix of wonder and disgust. Segmentation, and telling people what they want to hear, are old advertising strategy. However, social media has provided a more targeted and intimate advertiser-consumer experience than ever before. Advertisers, or rather advertising platforms (Facebook, Google, etc.) also know more about consumers on an individual level than any direct marketer in the past could imagine. Apply some behavioural psychology to this, and maybe you can disrupt democracy itself.
How did we, the world, allow ourselves to become so easy to manipulate? Blame advertising. The desire of marketers to get inside consumers' heads is relentless, and it's really working. Just a couple of days ago, my partner was looking at soufflé dishes online. While she was still doing that (as we have a shared family account for Gmail) ads for soufflé dishes started appearing on my Facebook feed. This is simple behavioural retargeting, but it works.
In the mysterious inner workings of Facebook, all of my online relationships and posts are analyzed to better serve me content and ads that will be of interest to me. That was the plan, anyway. In reality, our social media networks become expanding bubbles of confirmation bias that can actually transform and/or stratify our worldview.
For a consumer advertiser, the goal is to build brand loyalty. Today, a brand can take advantage of the information Facebook and Google collect to attach their brand to "the big issues" and develop loyalty that is based on lifestyle, community, and even politics.
For the propagandists behind the 2016 US election disruptions, however, the goal was to inflame fierce loyalty within one's political sphere, while sowing FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about their opponents. The result is an influence on voting behaviour and the breakdown of the American political system.
When all is revealed by the House Intelligence Committee, 2016-17 will become a case study in mass persuasion, creating a belief system that turned voters away from mainstream politicians and into the arms of a complete disaster of a President. People didn't need to be convinced Trump was great, only that existing system was broken and Trump could disrupt it for the benefit of his base.
This operation, by the way, is ongoing, as any review of the replies to a Trump tweet will show. The United States is fractured, and the jagged pieces are drifting further away from each other every day.