Rubles and Rhetoric: Corporate Kairos and Social Media’s Crisis of Common Sense

At the end of 2017, Facebook—and, to a lesser extent, Twitter—came under fire for accepting $100,000 in advertising money from Russian actors during the 2016 US presidential election (Shane and Goel). This money was used to publish several political ads that were generated by a troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. In a written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, Facebook executives revealed that 29 million Facebook users were served with that content directly (Isaac and Wakabayshi).

Due to Facebook’s engagement-based algorithm, approximately 126 million people may have seen the ads. Assuming that many people who may have been served the ads may not have logged in that day, may have scrolled by, or may not have interacted with them at all, Facebook estimates that only about 11.4 million people saw the ad (Byers). Around 3,000 of these ads also appeared on Instagram, owned by Facebook (Byers). It has not been reported how many users were served the Instagram ads. 

In this article, we investigate the platform politics and technological dynamics at play on Facebook that allowed Russian politically motivated advertisements to be purchased with Rubles during the 2016 election season. These ads were purchased using a currency that clearly indicated an attempt by a foreign power to influence a US election, something prohibited by the FEC (Federal Election Commission, “Foreign Nationals”). In the Senate judiciary subcommittee hearing, Senator Al Franken asked Facebook VP Colin Stretch, “American political ads and Russian money: rubles. How could you not connect those two dots?” 

Facebook’s inattention to rubles as payment for advertising is a high-profile example of the larger ethical issues in social media and a demonstration of the power of what we call corporate kairos (West and Pope), the need/desire of corporate actors to bypass the normal rules of audience access on social media to specifically target the individuals they want to impact exactly when they want to impact them. In this piece, we add to the conversation on corporate kairos by underscoring the ways that Facebook’s platform is not only built around pay-to-play access-on-demand, but that this lucrative system is almost entirely driven by algorithms with no meaningful checks against unethical usages. 

Not unlike previous research on administrative scandals in the field such as Challenger (Dombrowski; Moore), Columbia (Dombrowski), and Ford (DeGeorge; Bryan), we focus on the cultures and attitudes that lead to such behavior as much as the behavior itself from bad actors. In addition, we join the increasing number of scholars who are looking at the ways that platforms allow such behavior through their algorithms, as well as how researchers can and should make more visible the effects of both human and non-human actors (Beck; Gillespie; Gruwell; Lee; Noble; Wachter-Boetthcher). The pervasiveness of the cultural issues at Facebook, which we only scratch the surface of in this article, can be seen in recent reports that the platform has gone so far as to auto-generate pages for hate groups (De Chant). As we examine the specific case of interference from Russian troll farms on social media during the 2016 US presidential election, we further extend these conversations by discussing how Facebook’s algorithm allowed for and even facilitated this interference. 

As the 2020 US election and subsequent January 6 Insurrection showed, political ads and misinformation have become standard pieces of the content we consume and a guiding force in the public’s conception of the current political and cultural landscape (Bridgman et al.; Love and Karabinus; Skinnell). Pew Research Center reports that about two in ten US adults get the majority of their political news on social media platforms—and this number doesn’t even consider the number of adults who only get some of their political news from social media (Jurkowitz and Mitchell). Because of this, we find it necessary to look back at this controversy to understand just how fundamental and working-as-intended this activity was/is for social media and the ethical/social implications it raises for us as writers in social media and professional spaces. To do this, we will first broadly discuss the types of ads that were created by the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 US Presidential Election. We will then use our concept of corporate kairos to show how these ads were able to be posted, why these ads were ultimately successful, and what this means for users, researchers, and teachers of these platforms.

Russian Troll Farm Ads During a US Election

For the most part, the ads and promotions that were produced by the Internet Research Agency were related to what the troll farm considered to be divisive political topics: LGBTQ+ rights, gun rights, undocumented immigrants’ legal status, etc. The goal of many of these ads was to sow seeds of discord within the American political system, stoke racial and cultural tensions, and even to infiltrate political movements like the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The more controversial the ad or promotion, the more comments, shares, and reactions it usually got. And due to Facebook’s engagement-based algorithm, controversial ads or promotions were more likely to be seen by an even larger audience. The correlation between activity on a post and the resultant exposure creates a perverse incentive for content that is controversial or unethical as a way to boost a given piece of content’s rhetorical velocity (Ridolfo and DeVoss) and to get even more value out of a given ad buy. 

And this strategy was effective: one the most popular of the troll farm’s 470 Facebook groups was “Blacktivist,” a fake group that claimed to support community organizing for the Black Lives Matter movement (O’Sullivan and Byers). By creating and promoting controversial posts intended to spark outrage, the group gained more than 500,000 followers, more than the platform-verified Black Lives Matter official page at that time. Put another way, the rhetorical velocity of the fake group outpaced that of the actual Black Lives Matters group when measuring by the metric of followers. It is worth noting that as far as we’re aware, none of this raised any red flags for Facebook.

After the Senate subcommittee hearing, Facebook released what it called a few “representative samples” of the Russian ads and promotions (Shane and Goel). These ads use a variety of rhetorical strategies, which we could discuss at length but that isn’t our intention here. Instead, we use Figure 1 to show a few example advertisements/sponsored posts so that you can see the type of content that went unnoticed by any of Facebook’s algorithms. 

Fig. 1. Examples of advertisements purchased with rubles (Shane and Goel). 

In Figure 1, the first advertisement links users to a petition to have Hillary Clinton removed from the 2016 Presidential Ballot because the “dynastic succession of the Clinton family in American politics breaches the core democratic principles laid out by our Founding Fathers.” The second post shows a picture of three people in burqa with question marks over their faces. It encourages users to “like and share if you want burqa banned in America” and includes the name of the group, “Stop All Invaders.” The third post shows an illustration of Satan and Jesus arm wrestling with the following text imposed on the image: “Satan: If I win Clinton wins! Jesus: Not if I can help it! Press ‘Like’ to Help Jesus Win!”

Corporate Kairos’s Function in Ad Creation and Distribution

Throughout the subcommittee hearing and in related media coverage, Facebook—and Twitter—executives have made it clear that this Russian-influenced content was only a small percentage of content that was generated during that time period. While this may be true, the question we are considering is not to what extent this social media influence impacted the election results. Instead, we ask, how was a Russian troll farm able to purchase ad space for their content? For us the answer is fairly simple: the system was working as intended, giving blind access to all users based on user data that is accessible to anyone who can pay for it. 

We define corporate kairos in our 2018 Present Tense article as “the demand of corporate members of social media platforms to circumvent the normal rules of rhetorical velocity and kairos” (West and Pope). To create our definition, we draw on David Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, and Anthony Michel’s definition of the kairotic struggle as “the way a rhetor composes a text to ensure its success in a particular situation,” and they note, “the rhetorical process exceeds the composing process; the rhetor’s work is not done when the composition is done” (60). We also draw on the idea of rhetorical velocity from Ridolfo and Devoss’s 2009 Kairos article, defined as “a strategic approach to composing for rhetorical delivery. It is both a way of considering delivery as a rhetorical mode, aligned with an understanding of how texts work as a component of a strategy.”

For us, corporate kairos is best understood when set in opposition to what is available to normal, non-corporate (or non-paying) users of social media. The average user or content creator has to first understand the demands of the platform, as well as the types of content the platform allows and/or privileges. For example, Facebook privileges content that leads to engagement (reactions, shares, comments). Then the content creator will craft their message using a certain genre which is likely already in action for the platform, like a meme or a certain visual or textual convention, as illustrated in Figure 2. For the average user, going viral intentionally is hard work and often out of reach. 

Fig. 2. Chart that demonstrates the traditional pathway that content takes from creator to audience.

Corporate kairos is the fundamental opposite of the average user’s content creation process, as most social media platforms provide tools to corporate (or paying) users so that they can deliver content directly to their chosen audience. Figure 3 below shows the relative ease that paying users have in targeting a specific audience on Facebook. In this example, we target an ad to users 25-55, located within 25 miles of either San Jose, CA, or Fayetteville, AR, who are identified (by Facebook’s algorithm) as conservative and who also show an interest in Right Wing news. Were we to post an ad to this audience, we’d be able to reach 75,000 users without worrying about choosing the right genre or content to our audience. 

Fig. 3. Screen capture of Facebook’s “Create New Audience” options.

It does help, however, when that content is rhetorically and contextually savvy. When the Internet Research Agency created ads for the Facebook platform, they showed a considerable amount of rhetorical dexterity in that these ads looked like something you’d find already on Facebook. In addition, they relied on already controversial topics like the Clinton family history and immigration, as well as traditional assumptions about the political parties by using appeals to Christian imagery, for example, to villainize Hillary Clinton (Figure 1). They also gave Facebook the engagement that it wanted since these ads often ignited arguments that resulted in more comments and reactions by the audience.  

The difference between the Internet Research Agency and the average user, however, is that the group was able to specifically craft their kairotic moment by using Facebook’s platform tools. They could trick Facebook’s users by producing content that looked like it fit on the site; they could make use of Facebook’s algorithms simply by having the money to bypass the system normal users have to make use of. The corporate kairos of ad buys combined with controversial content overpowered what many consider to be a kairotic and vital social movement (Hidalgo and Sackey).

In this way, by granting corporate users the ability to craft messages using a paywalled corporate kairos, social media platforms exert control on rhetorical velocity. Just think about the Internet Research Agency’s 29 million ad-served users compared to the 129 million who may have actually been shown the ad. All of this, as far as social media goes, is simply working as intended. Views are money, and those views are available to the people and organizations who are willing to pay for them.  

Conclusion: A Call for Critical Engagement

Platforms like Facebook create advertising algorithms that are capable of targeting an audience on the most minute detail, but—to get at our larger concern here—they simply choose not to use that same power to screen ads that violate federal and state laws. And this isn’t a one-time occurrence, as investigative journalism has shown us over and over again (Angwin, Varner, and Tobin, “Facebook (Still) Letting Housing Advertisers”). After all, Facebook makes money from the purchase of the ad; it doesn’t make money based on who purchased the ad. The corporate kairos users’ data is simply not valuable to them when held up against data mined from the masses of users that connect and communicate on their platforms. 

As with much of Silicon Valley, a lot of the work done at Facebook is automated, especially when dealing with paid content and content that garners high engagement (Amadeo). That is how, later in 2017, Facebook both assigned users anti-Semitic designations and allowed paying users to target ads to users with this designation (Angwin, Varner, and Tobin, “Facebook Enabled Advertisers”). And, more recently, it’s how 40% of news about the COVID-19 Pandemic that had already been debunked by fact-checkers still remained on the site (Scott). These occurrences, for us, get at the larger ethical dilemma surrounding corporate kairos: all of this happens with no one at the wheel.

The lack of engagement with the algorithms that support corporate kairos is a continuation of what social media has done so well: taken system-centered design and repackaged it into something “new” (Johnson). The average user on these platforms simply has to adapt to the way the system works, the genres that are available, and the types of posting available. These systems are user-centered in that they care about who the users are and what they do or like, but the true users of this system are the ones the system has been oriented around serving for a profit: the corporate kairos users who buy their way into the placement and audience they want.

For us, the example of the Internet Research Agency’s infiltration into social media platforms like Facebook—as well as the creation and success of groups like Blacktivist and others—speaks to the larger issue that we face as technical writers and communicators. We often treat social media platforms as unbiased and even playing fields. How many of us have asked students to “go viral” for an assignment, or pulled up an amusing web video that has spread online and wondered at the novelty of it all? But these are not innocent platforms, and these algorithms are not there for “us,” the average user. They are in service to the corporate kairos user, the one who pays for everything that we see and fuels the constant onslaught of paid content.

We need to push ourselves and our students to not treat these platforms as innocent, and to understand and ethically approach the vast store of user data available for corporate or paying actors on these platforms. These spaces need critical users to help advocate for more transparent practices by advertisers and platforms, and we need to begin to think critically about how this mode of publication basically bypasses traditional notions of kairos and alters the ways we talk about audience and rhetorical velocity. 

As teachers of writing and communication and online texts in particular, we need to impress on our students how to critically engage with texts that are primarily placed in front of them via corporate kairos, and how to trace the origin and motive of these texts on platforms that often go to great lengths to hide this vital information. 

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COVER IMAGE CREDIT: Created by author, Adam Pope.

KEYWORDS: social networking, kairos, election, rhetoric, internet