Trove of Russian-backed Facebook ads show 2016 strategy at work

  • TECH
  • Friday, 11 May 2018

A 3D-printed Facebook logo is displayed in front of the Russian flag, in this illustration taken October 25, 2017. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

A trove of thousands of Russian-backed Facebook ads, being made public for the first time, shows that Russia’s main goal was provoking discontent in the US, leading to and continuing beyond Donald Trump’s election in 2016. 

The ads, which are one of the clearest demonstrations of Russia’s financial investment in disrupting American politics, have been much discussed by Congress, Facebook and Special Counsel Robert Mueller behind closed doors. 

For some lawmakers, they raised questions about whether Russia was successful in swaying public opinion, in Trump’s favour or otherwise. For Facebook, the ads deepen the reckoning over the company’s responsibility in society, and especially in elections. 

The 3,519 ads, released Thursday by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, were posted between 2015 and 2017. They were designed to draw clicks from people who had liked Facebook groups on both sides of emotional issues involving gun regulations, Muslims, gay rights, immigration, African-Americans – and various candidates. 

Representative Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence panel’s ranking Democrat, said Facebook Inc cooperated with the committee to make those ads public to help prevent similar abuse in the future. 

“The only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see first-hand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us,” Schiff said in a statement. 

Fears for 2018 races 

The pile of social media evidence was released as some states have already held primaries for this year’s midterm elections, amid warnings that electoral systems haven’t been sufficiently safeguarded. 

Democrats on the increasingly partisan House Intelligence Committee took the lead on redacting and publishing the full trove of ads, although they were shared with members of bother parties. Lawmakers released some sample ads during a series of hearings last year. A report from the panel’s Republicans already declared they found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. 

The files published Thursday show the text of each ad, number of impressions and number of clicks. Some of the posts were targeted to users in certain cities or those who liked or befriended specific groups. In some cases, the posts urged people to participate in actual rallies, drawing hundreds or even thousands of people to say they were interested or planned on going. 

A series of posts targeted to people who liked the Russia-linked group called “Black Matters” were only shown to users in cities that had had episodes of racial unrest, including Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and Cleveland. 

Both sides tricked 

Different ads sought to stir up opposing sides of the same event or issue. For example, one ad, from July 2017, claimed that the gunman who killed five police officers in Dallas in 2016 used buildings owned by Muslims to carry out the attack.

That ad was aimed at people who identified themselves as patriotic, and aimed to get likes for the Russian-run page, Heart of Texas, which organised anti-Muslim activism. It was shared 675 times. Ads on another page around the same time encouraged Muslims to let everyone know they didn’t support terrorism. One of those ads, from the Russian page United Muslims of America, got 576 shares. 

The Heart of Texas group also posted about veterans and border security, often using doctored images designed to stir an emotional response. One post claims that the Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, had a 69% disapproval rating among veterans. Another ad from this group called on people to “honour your ancestors” by participating in a “Secession Rally”. More than 800 people reacted. 

The accounts that bought the ads were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed group that has been indicted by Mueller for its activities. Most of the ads were purchased in rubles. 

Rubles and doctored images 

One post from October 2016, depicting Clinton with a clown nose, promises that by liking the “Clinton FRAUDation” page you’ll learn “everything you wanted to know about Clinton’s dark side”. The Internet Research Agency paid 3,611 rubles (RM231), which at the time was worth about US$58, to target people interested in Trump’s candidacy, and 3,730 people saw it. 

Since releasing the ads, Facebook has been trying to prevent similar foreign manipulation in other elections around the world, as well as in this year’s US congressional elections. 

The company says it has been on the lookout for threats and working to make election ads more transparent, by designating them as political, for example. Facebook is also working to verify the identities of advertisers in the US who want to run ads on political issues. 

Still, the company says more needs to be done and it can’t guarantee it can ever fix the problem. Facebook has been hiring more people to work on election security, indicating that they think it will be a long-term issue, like spam and hacking, that requires constant vigilance. 

Post-election meddling 

Even after Trump was elected, Russians continued to use social media to stir unrest. The page Being Patriotic paid 1,999 rubles (RM127) for an ad on Nov 10 that promoted a Trump rally: “Today some massive crowds of libtards marched in NYC against election of Donald Trump”. The ad said people should gather at Trump Tower the Saturday after the election: “Show Mr Trump there actually ARE people in NY who voted for him!”  

The ad targeted people employed by the New York Police Department or the US Army Reserves, or who were members of the National Rifle Association. At the time, the event had 248 people interested in attending, and 60 people RSVPed. 

Around the same time through different channels, Russia promoted rallies against the president-elect. The BM page, which provided Facebook distribution for the website, advertised a list of anti-Trump meetups, using the #NotMyPresident hashtag. One of those ads, which cost 1,378 rubles (RM88), was targeted toward people who said they liked Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X. More than 10,000 people saw it and 1,310 of them clicked. 

This kind of interference has led some lawmakers to call for greater regulation of tech companies. 

Facebook sent its top lawyer to testify on the ads in front of the Intelligence Committee last fall, alongside representatives from Twitter Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google. The company was criticised for not understanding and alerting users and the government about the problem earlier, especially because the ads were purchased in Russian currency. 

According to an indictment brought by Mueller of 13 Russian operatives earlier this year, the Facebook specialists, pretending to be Americans, took shifts to ensure they posted during the appropriate time zones and circulated lists of US holidays to stay in the American groove. 

Schiff said Democrats on the committee would continue their investigation, working with tech companies “to expose additional content, advertisements, and information”. — Bloomberg

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