The Great Russian Electoral Catfish
How Russians Used “Good” Digital Marketing to Disrupt the 2016 Election
On February 16, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for their alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The primary charge was “Conspiracy to Defraud the United States” – which is, coincidentally, what these entities would consider the single greatest web conversion.
Outside of its nefarious nature, the entire operation was incredibly well-planned. Everything was impressively controlled and seamlessly executed – even though the mission was to cause pure chaos. Putting polarized political messaging aside, we are going to dig into what we know about the investigation, so far, and explain why the Russian meddling in the election was actually a really “good” digital marketing campaign.
The Russians Established “Conversions”
In the web world, a conversion can mean a bunch of different things. However, they’re mostly identified as any of the following: Leads from form submissions, phone calls, downloads, email signups and appointment signups. This is the first step in any web campaign. What metric can you track that constitutes as “lead generation?” What do you want your potential clients or customers to do as a response to your digital efforts? Determine what it means to win.
The objective of the Russians and their team of 300+ trolls was to sow seeds of political discord, distrust, confusion and anger among Americans. This is the equivalent of a client telling us “we want to rank higher and make more money.” Sure, it’s a good mission, but how will we define tangible success? In the Russians’ case, conversions included RSVPs to candidate rallies/protests, viral marketing benchmarks and even newsletter signups. They not only wanted to increase brand/message exposure, but they wanted real-world activity. They wanted angry bodies at their internally-created events, organic sharing of their propaganda (or “Fake News”) and, ultimately, for the candidate that is most advantageous to their interests to be elected into the highest office.
It is important to note that the effect of the digital disruption is still (somewhat) up for debate, as it is also nearly impossible to gauge exactly how much impact the content impressions had on the election. However, there was a binary goal established with a hard deadline: Elect the chosen candidate. That goal was achieved. Conversion complete.
They Created a Perfect Target Audience
When designing a campaign, we typically ask a client to describe their perfect customer. Who are they after? Who will spend the most money with the least amount of hassle and overhead? What demographic will lead their business to victory? In the curious case of the Russian meddling, that target was clench-fisted, grassroots, Conservative Americans – the hive-mind that will get angry/motivated, share articles without reading too much into the nuts and bolts (solely because it serves their personal political agenda) and show up to their rallies across the nation, bolstering apparent support for the cause.
This is, quite possibly, the most impressively designed portion of their plan. The Russians found a way to effectively reach a segmented audience that would do their marketing for them. They only spent $1,000,000 in social media advertisements (including $274,100 on Twitter), yet their ads reached more than 126,000,000 unique visitors alone on Facebook. This tells us that those who received the ads not only read and reacted to them, but they shared them to their own friends and followers outside of the original target demographic – hence free, additional viral marketing. Imagine if you spent $100 on ads for your clothing store, but then 50 of the 1,000 people reached shared your ad, sending your impressions from 1,000 paid to 10,000 organic. You’re going to target that audience all day/election season long!
They Employed the Necessary Marketing Channels
In the 37-page indictment and in the verbal announcement made by U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, it was noted that the Russian team was ready to rumble, complete with content writers, IT professionals, an SEO team, a design squad and dedicated social media trolls at the ready. They even had a freaking finance department to manage their budget.
Here’s an overview of each of the tactics they employed:
SEO/Search Engine Optimization
They appealed to search engines by using proper on-page SEO and backlinking to their own posts and websites, making each troll site appear to be more popular and reputable to algorithms. On top of this, they targeted specific long-tail search terms that only their fringe audience would search for. Google will typically place a scholarly article or well-sourced news article at the top of the rankings for certain phrases, but if there are no established sources published (because the topic at hand is absolutely asinine), the conspiracy theory posts and Russian-created propaganda easily take the top spots. For instance, there was this article, titled “Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa Caucus” published Aug. 4, 2016. That didn’t actually happen, so no one wrote about it, making the competition for related phrases incredibly low.
And if it is on Google, it must be true!
Boosted Posts & Designed Ads/Memes
As noted above, Russians spent roughly $1,000,000 in social media advertising to boost their message. They used their resources to create memes (super easy to digest and mindlessly share in the modern age) and other ad designs that would stoke fears, enrage target audiences and get a ton of shares quickly. The Washington Post did an incredible job of tracking some of these ads down, so you can check them out here. A word of warning: they’re crazy.
On top of this, they carved out those target audiences and created customized messaging to strategic demographics, including:
- Someone who “likes” patriotism
- A Texan
- A person in Ferguson, Mo.
- A New Yorker supporting a group that mimicked Black Lives Matter
- A New Yorker supporting Trump
- Someone who supports veterans
- A Southern conservative
- A Christian conservative
- An NRA supporter
- Someone who “likes” the page Being Patriotic
- Supportive of strong borders
Social Media Hashtags for Conversations, Branding & Tracking
A solid hashtag campaign can yield a ton of buzz and new eyeballs on your content if placed in front of the right initial crowd. It’s a great way to monitor specific social media conversations and engage in it, yourself. What did the Russians do? Create these bizarre tags that appealed to their primary base, thus reinforcing their off-base views, falsely justifying their beliefs via social media and getting massive amounts of shares.
In the world of digital marketing, you create blog articles to add value to your users, create new ideas and promote products. Content marketing is typically employed to establish you as the industry thought leader – not vindicate conspiracy theories. Regardless of the mission, however, the tactics presented here were solid. Russians used content marketing to spread their desired message and achieve their goal.
You can say anything you want on Facebook or Twitter and it can fly right under the radar. However, if you include a link, an image and a clickbait title, you’ll not only get more organic impressions and engagement, but you’ll also trick the Facebook algorithm into boosting your post to the top of your mutual friends’ feeds and increasing how often you see content from that specific source. (Because of this, the social media giant is reshaping its algorithm to boost more local news from established sources to the top of the page.) When one has an “article” backing his or her insane claim, it can create a forthright illusion – one that makes the propaganda look like a credible source to some less inquisitive and investigative eyes.
Some of these article & clickbait titles include:
- Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it
- Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote
- Ohio Wants Hillary 4 Prison
- Among all the candidates Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists
- Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is
*That last one is our personal favorite.
Where They Strayed from “White Hat” Marketing
Here’s where things go South – you know, outside of the mission behind the entire thing. The Russians used proxy servers, stationed in the United States, to create Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) to communicate with their Russian-based counterparts, successfully masking the origins of the activity and making it appear like a truly grassroots to anyone who may have been suspicious and decided to do a deep data dive. They also used stolen U.S. social security numbers in order to make payments through PayPal, which, you know, is SUPER ILLEGAL.
And, in the end, the trolls quite literally catfished the ever-living daylights out of Americans. However, instead of arriving at an awkward date, these folks showed up to the polls.
What Do We Take From All Of This
There’s quite a lot to learn from the 2016 Russian meddling campaign. On the digital marketing side, we’ve learned that solid planning pays off, employing only the necessary marketing channels will reduce wasted resources and targeting the perfect audience will ensure that they will do promotion for you, saving precious budget money.
As content creators and business owners, we’ve learned that we must source our statistics and vet the resources we use to make decisions. We have to show our work and prove that we are trusted sources of ideas and industry insights when writing.
As everyday people, we’ve learned that we have to be smarter and more diligent.
Facebook is reshaping its algorithm. Twitter has already deleted more than 200,000 Russian troll tweets. But it is up to us to be more skeptical about news and sources. We’ve recently written an article to help identify the differences between Fake News, clickbait and articles with true value and journalistic integrity. FactCheck.org created a comprehensive guide to spotting fake news. If you see something that is obviously propaganda or, at the very least, dishonest and intentionally misleading, don’t be afraid to call it out. Directly challenging falsehoods with facts is the answer to propaganda in the “post-truth” era.