At the top of the list of questions about the 2016 presidential election is whether, how, and how much Russians interfered with, you know, the sovereignty of our nation. In the continued attempt to assess this, Congress recently demanded Facebook turn over some 3,300 ads on its site that appear to have been created by Russian operatives in order to disrupt the U.S. election. The extent of interference—and even the extent to which we will be able to understand the influence of said interference—is still very up in the air.
But fear not, fellow Americans. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, is on the case. Sort of. The recent congressional acquisition gave Smith, who heads the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, an idea: He, too, can investigate the worst of the worst when it comes to Russian meddling. That’s right, Smith is going to get to the bottom of Russian interference with ... our love of oil.
On Sept. 27, Smith issued letters to Larry Page of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, requesting data pertaining to anti-fracking ads spread on these platforms. The letters, which start with Smith connecting the dots between election interference and oil market interference, establish his reasons for believing these ads were intentionally created by Russia in order to harm America:
The Committee on Science, Space and Technology is continuing its oversight of what appears to be a concerted effort by the Russian government to influence the U.S. energy market. In light of Facebook’s disclosure of over $100,000 in social media advertising associated with Russian accounts focused on the disruption and influence of U.S. politics through social media, it is likely that Russia undertook a similar effort using social media to influence the U.S. energy market. ...
Specifically, the Committee is interested in any and all information [the company] has regarding Russian entities purchasing anti-fracking or any anti-fossil fuel advertisements or promotions on any [company] affiliated entities.
Smith is correct in his assumptions that Russia has a motive. In recent years, oil prices have certainly dipped, much to the chagrin of Russia, a country heavily dependent on oil exports. Though commodity markets are complex and volatile, part of the dip has been tied to the rise of fracking. The technique for extracting natural gas from shale has gotten cheaper and more effective, creating an excess of fossil fuels and subsequently lowering prices.
Russia has responded to this depression in the oil market by pushing anti-fracking propaganda through its RT “news” arm, as Bloomberg documented in January. The country has long been accused of creating fake environmental groups to promote its causes. RT stories often raise concerns about the safety of fracking—with the express hope of bringing consumers back to good ol’ reliable Russian oil. Still, evidence for Smith’s suggestion that Russians have targeted Americans with special social media ads to promote their anti-fracking agenda is woefully lacking.
It’s also unclear whether such interference would fall under the purview of Smith’s committee, or any committee at all. Or if this could even be categorized as a crime. In the case of a commodity like oil, which can be bought, sold, promoted, and protested, it’ll be difficult to parse whether anti-fossil fuels ads are dangerous propaganda—or just digital ads. Whatever could be said of those ads could likely also be said of the United States’ own pro-fossil fuels ads, like the American Petroleum Institute’s controversial 2017 Super Bowl commercial, which run regularly without drawing Congressional ire. And while Smith’s letters suggest that many members of Congress severely underestimate the ardent anti-fossil fuel sentiments held by real Americans, it’s hilarious that he thinks anti-fossil fuel sentiment is the result of Russian click farms, rather than genuine (and valid) concern about the extraction method’s environmental side effects, from earthquakes to greenhouse gas emissions.
In other words, this does not seem to be a Russian meddling scandal that demands the time and attention of our governing bodies. Instead of attempting to assess whether Russia has tried to influence sentiment about an inherently porous, capitalistic, propaganda-fueled energy market, Congress should focus its efforts toward understanding whether the country hijacked our sovereignty.