This is not high-level spy craft. It is, rather, bread-and-butter audience-development work. My guess here is that they simply looked at Facebook analytics. It’s one click in the Facebook interface to look at these numbers.
And finally, they reached out to social-media influencers to promote their events, which by all accounts were at best mildly successful. “Defendants and their coconspirators contacted administrators of large social-media groups focused on U.S. politics and requested that they advertise the rallies,” the indictment says. The practice of big social-media pages trading (or even buying/selling) posts is widely practiced. They’re often called “partnerships” in the audience-development game.
This all sounds like a messy, Rube Goldbergian way to deliver people news, entertainment, and propaganda on the internet, but it is how distribution has worked since Facebook became a major player in the news ecosystem five years ago.
Facebook is largely responsible for the widespread use of all these tactics. They built the system that the media had to live in to survive. The system treats all “content” the same, which means that regular people, media companies, activists, and advertisers fight tooth and nail for attention within the News Feed. For companies, that attention is, eventually, linked to revenue, so brands and media outfits dedicated substantial attention to honing all these practices. Now, there is a spectrum, running from “even The New York Times would do it,” through influencer marketing, and down to the scummiest almost-fraud tactics. On that continuum, the Russian campaign seems pretty vanilla.
And as for the secrecy and traceability of the effort, the foreign-affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov described it to The Times as “very ad hoc, very amateurish.”
I’d take the audience-development teams at BuzzFeed, Arby’s, or JetBlue over the Internet Research Agency any day of the week. It is not hard to imagine a far better campaign to have actually tried to throw the election. For example, the Russians could have targeted electorally crucial areas within certain battleground states. Instead, as we learned at a Senate hearing in November, “the total amount spent targeting Wisconsin was a mere $1,979; all but $54 was spent prior to the completion of the primary, and none of the ads even mentioned Trump. The spending in Michigan and Pennsylvania was even smaller.”
Mueller’s indictment even suggests that the Russian operatives were not familiar with the term “purple state” until they talked with somebody in Texas in June of 2016. “After that exchange,” the indictment says, “Defendants and their coconspirators commonly referred to targeting ‘purple states’ in directing their efforts.”
This analysis, of course, is based on extant evidence. Worse things could be found.