US investigators have revealed that a number of Facebook ads that were purchased by Russians during the 2016 US Presidential Election, during the course of an investigation into Russian interference through ads purchased on Google, Facebook and Twitter.
The ads are a portion of the 3,000 ads that Facebook had provided to congressional investigators. The advertisements are related to a number of divisive issues, including race, religion, gun laws and immigration. Some ads specifically address the candidates while others seem to be designed to just amplify the divisiveness, in some instances calling for people from opposite sides of a divisive issue for simultaneous rallies in the same location.
As part of the opening statement during the hearing on Russian meddling through digital platforms, Intel Committee Ranking Member Schiff said, "Russia exploited real vulnerabilities that exist across online platforms and we must identify, expose, and defend ourselves against similar covert influence operations in the future. The companies here today must play a central role as we seek to better protect legitimate political expression, while preventing cyberspace from being misused by our adversaries."
The sample of advertisements were served through groups that supported religious minorities, racial minorities and the LGBT community. There were also posts in groups that were antagonistic to religious minorities, immigration and changes in laws related to gun ownership. A few ads actually clearly denounce Trump and support Hillary. Increasing divisiveness in American society seems to be as much as an objective of the campaign as pushing Trump towards victory.
Whether or not the Russian campaign and the Trump campaign were coordinated is unclear at this time and is a topic of the ongoing investigation. However, the foreign campaign advisor of the Trump campaign, George Papadopolous, has admitted to receiving offers from Russia to assist Trump with the campaign through hacked emails that contained dirt on Hillary Clinton. Wikileaks released 1,500 emails, after which Clinton accused WikiLeaks of taking the heat off Trump by colluding with Russia.
The ads are believed to have been purchased by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm. Russia has denied any efforts to interfere with the elections. There is also the question of how influential these ads were and the proportion of ads originating in Russia as compared to locally created content. The total ad buys by IRA on Facebook amounted to about $46,000, while the Trump and Clinton campaigns together spent about $81 million on Facebook ads.
Between June 2015 and August 2017, the IRA apparently purchased 3,393 ads on Facebook reaching 11.4 million American users, through 470 IRA associated accounts. IRA is in control of approximately 120 pages on Facebook and more than 80,000 posts were published by accounts linked to Russia over the course of the campaign.
According to an assessment by the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) conducting the investigation, “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."
While the ads have sparse targeting, there is a measure of auto-selection going on here. The ads target friends of the people who liked the groups that distributed the apps, so in a way, the users themselves participated in the propagation of the propaganda. Facebook’s Custom Audience tool was also reportedly used for the distribution of the ads.
FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe has said that the US Government should have anticipated Russian interference and that the intelligence agency was making the efforts necessary to make sure Moscow “pays” for its actions.
Facebook has committed to be more transparent about political advertising on its platform, and has announced plans to introduce a publicly searchable database of political ads on Facebook.