Speaking at the TechCrunch Disrupt tech conference today, former Facebook CSO Alex Stamos reflected on his time dealing with fake news and Russian intelligence interference ahead and after the 2016 US presidential election.
The former Facebook security head said "it [was] pretty clear the GRU's goal was to weaken a future Hillary presidency," referring to the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forcesof Russia (GRU), one of the country's intelligence agencies.
"Putin has a [you know, it's been well-documented] like a personal antipathy towards her and believes that she was behind the protests against him in the 2012 Russian election, and so, the GRU activity was specifically focused on weakening her."
"I think it was less about actually electing Trump," Stamos added. "I find it unlikely that the Russians are better than Nate Silver at predicting elections."
Stamos said his security team first detected Russia's influence campaign in the spring of 2016, intervened to stop the spreading of some material obtained through the DNC hacks, but didn't have the big picture until after the election.
"After the election, we really dove into the whole fake news problem, and a big question was what was behind this?
"It turns out that the vast majority of [fake news] it's actually financially motivated. You know, stereotypical Macedonian teenagers who actually do exist and who are living the good life, as long with folks in Romania, Pakistan, and a bunch of other places with kind of good English comprehension technical skills."
Stamos then explains in the first half of the 20-minute interview how his team was able to distinguish pretty easily between fake news campaigns and political influence campaigns.
He says most fake news items that spread on either Facebook and Twitter will take users off-site so the operator of the fake news site can earn revenue through ads or ad fraud.
Stamos says his team was able to separate political influence campaigns, such as the ones carried out by GRU (one of Russia's intelligence agencies) and the Internet Research Agency, from classic run-of-the-mill fake news because they weren't focused on monetization, but on sowing chaos in the American public life.
"What the Internet Research Agency and the other government trolls want to do is they want to get you to reshare the content on social media and so they what they especially like to do is image memes," Stamos said.
"That makes them no money. There's no way they can make money of you resharing this meme over and over again, and that's a good indication that somebody's paying them other than advertisers."
Stamos then goes on to explain the difference between the influence campaigns carried out by GRU intelligence officers and the IRA paid-trolls.
"If you look at the Russian campaign against [the] 2016 [election], there's really two different buckets," the former Facebook exec said.
"There's the GRU-led work, which is about a bunch of [hacked] data from the DNC, from John Podesta, from Colin Powell, from other folks, and they used that hacked information to create the news stories they wanted to see in the media.
They amplified it using their trolls, but in that case, it was the legitimate newspapers and cable news networks and legitimate journalists who were carrying the message of the GRU and kind of washing it through the respectability of their outlets that then changed the entire conversation."
Stamos says the GRU model is "a very different kind of model than the IRA model, which is to directly push messages to Americans."
"The IRA model is much less about this candidate or not. The GRU was specifically targeted at Hillary. [...] The IRA activity, which started well before the election and has lasted well after the election, is really about driving wedges in American society."
Alex Stamos left his position as Facebook CSO in August for a teaching post at Standford University.
Just before he left, at the end of July, Facebook banned 32 accounts it believed were associated with the Internet Research Agency.
For the rest of his TechCrunch Disrupt session, Stamos also hit on the interesting fact that being a CSO is a crappy job nowadays because good CSOs will have bad decisions made by others stapled to their resumes, just like he's now associated with the Yahoo hacks and the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal. The full session is available below.