Facebook Says Russian-Linked Accounts Paid For Ads During 2016 Presidential Election

Facebook has revealed that hundreds of fake accounts most likely run from Russia spent around £75,000 on ads to stir up divisive issues during the 2016 US Presidential Election.

Although the amount is tiny compared to the total spent on advertising during the period (£1.07 billion), the revelations could have serious ramifications for the social media giant, international relations and Donald Trump’s presidency. 

1) The Campaign Could Have Been Hugely Influential 

In a blog post, Facebook revealed 70 accounts bought 3,300 ads between June 2015 and May 2017.

Based on a standard paid ad campaign the £75,000 would have translated to around 7,500,000 views.

On a platform with 2 billion monthly users this might not seem much, but this does not take into account the organic (non-paid) reach of those posts when they are shared.

2) It Pushed Already Divisive Issues

Facebook did not print the names of any of the suspended pages, but some of them included such words as “refugee” and “patriot”, reports the Associated Press.

It added that “these accounts didn’t specifically reference the US presidential election, voting or a particular candidate,” but instead “appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights”.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Facebook briefed the panel’s staff on Wednesday.

He said in many cases the social media messaging “was more about voter depression and suppression without having to necessarily mention an individual candidate’s name.”

3) The Accounts Originated From A Shady Russian Organisation

The 470 accounts appeared to come from a notorious “troll farm,” a St Petersburg-based organisation called the Internet Research Agency (IRA), known for promoting pro-Russian government positions via fake accounts.

In an unclassified report in January, the US intelligence community concluded that the IRA’s “likely financier” is a “close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence”.

The group employs at least 400 people, operating out of a nondescript building in a residential area of St Petersburg.

Former employees have spoken of their experiences working there. One told Radio Liberty in 2015 how they posed as “housewives” and “disappointed US citizens”.

They added: ”[During one 12-hour shift] I had to write 126 comments under the posts written by people inside the building.

“And about 25 comments on pages of real people – in order to attract somebody’s attention. And I had to write 10 blog posts.”

4) Some Of The The Ads Were Targeted

Facebook said he ads were mostly national in their focus although around a quarter were “geographically targeted”.

This raises the intriguing question of if Russian agents knew which areas/voters to target, where did they obtain the relevant information to do so?

Adam Schiff, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said: “One of the things that we’re interested obviously in finding out is whether there was any coordination in terms of the use of those paid social media trolls or the Russian use of bots.”

In May of this year, Time magazine reported that IRA-linked social media accounts had launched campaigns in the US in order to undermine the democracy of the country but Facebook dismissed the claims at the time.

But the latest findings show that may have been premature.

5) It’s Almost Definitely Illegal 

Both foreign nationals and foreign governments are prohibited from making contributions or spending money to influence a federal, state or local election in the United States.

The ban includes independent expenditures made in connection with an election.

Non-US citizens may generally advertise on issues. Other ads, such as those that mention a candidate but do not call for the candidate’s election or defeat, fall into what lawyers have called a legal grey area, reports Reuters.

Facebook’s disclosure may be the first time a private entity has pointed to receiving Russian money related to US elections, said Brendan Fischer, a program director at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for more transparency.

“Whoever may have provided assistance to Russia in buying these Facebook ads is very likely in violation of the law,” he said, adding that Facebook has a legal duty to act if it is aware of similar activity in the future.

6) It Could Have Implications For The US Investigations Into Russian Election Interference 

Facebook briefed members of both the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees on Wednesday about the suspected Russia advertising.

Schiff called the Facebook report “deeply disturbing and yet fully consistent with the unclassified assessment of the intelligence community.”

“We are keenly interested in Russia’s use of social media platforms, both the use of bots and trolls to spread disinformation and propaganda, including through the use of paid online advertising,” he said.

Both committees are conducting probes into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election, including potential collusion between the campaign of Donald Trump and Moscow.

7) It Further Muddies The Waters Surrounding Trump And Russia

Facebook also gave its findings to Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of investigating alleged Russian interference in last year’s presidential election, a source familiar with the matter said.

The company produced copies of advertisements as well as data about the buyers, the source said.

Mueller’s office declined to comment.

Although Facebook has said there is no evidence the ads were linked to either Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, the latest revelations will further muddy the water surrounding Russian influence over Trump’s election victory.

Trump is loathe to acknowledge even the slightest suggestion that Putin or his agents could have swung the result in his favour as it would be certain to at the very least take the sheen of his win.

As Mueller’s investigation has proceeded, largely kept under wraps, information has continued to come to light detailing possible links between Trump’s associates and Russia.

A the end of August the Kremlin confirmed the President’s personal lawyer reached out to them during the 2016 presidential campaign, seeking help for a business project in Russia.

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