You don’t get to $100,000 worth of Russian-bought political ads without raising a few questions.
The Washington Post reported earlier this month that Facebook officials told congressional investigators the company had traced $100,000 worth of ads, many about “divisive” political and social subjects, to a Russian firm in St. Petersburg. Each day since, far more questions than answers have arisen around the ad buy—an amount which, while it would be a drop in the ocean compared to typical media ad buys in battleground states, is especially potent given Facebook’s targeting capabilities.
So what do we know?
Facebook so far has declined to disclose the content of the ads and “inauthentic accounts” to the public. The company did provide records of Russian ad purchases and copies of the ads to special counsel Robert Mueller, who is overseeing the federal investigation into Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election, after Mueller reportedly obtained a warrant for the information.
Besides Mueller’s team, Facebook also announced last week that it would grant both the Senate Intelligence Committee and House Intelligence Committee access to the ads, which members have said they expect to review shortly (President Donald Trump was not pleased). In a statement explaining its belated decision to provide Congress with the ads as well, Facebook cited federal law it said “places strict limitations on the disclosure of account information.”
But thanks to some intrepid reporting, we’ve already learned a few things about the content of the ads in question.
Ads promoted anti-refugee sentiment, Stein, Sanders
Facebook would only publicly describe the content of the Russian ads as “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”
Since then, the company has confirmed at least one report on the ads’ subject matter: The Daily Beast reported that Russians using inauthentic accounts organized and promoted an anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rally in August 2016 in Idaho, echoing similar rhetoric pushed by pro-Trump news outlets.
A Facebook spokesman confirmed to the Daily Beast that the company “shut down several promoted events” as part of its “takedown” of the ad buy, and confirmed that the event was promoted with paid ads.
Then Politico on Tuesday reported, citing an unnamed source with knowledge of the ads, that at least one ad promoted Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
“Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein,” the ad read, according to the report. “Trust me. It’s not a wasted vote. … The only way to take our country back is to stop voting for the corporations and banks that own us. #GrowaSpineVoteJillStein.”
Other ads promoted Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), according to the report, even after the end of his campaign to become the Democratic nominee. Politico found that others criticized former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and promoted Trump.
Some ads appeared to have been targeted by location
According to Politico’s report, some ads appeared to promote the Black Lives Matter movement (albeit misspelled), while others promoted Muslim women’s support for Hillary Clinton.
Facebook declined to comment on particulars of the ads to Politico, but reiterated a claim the company made about the ads in its initial statement: “The vast majority of ads run by these accounts didn’t specifically reference the U.S. presidential election or voting for a particular candidate.”
The Daily Beast nevertheless found what it believed to be a Russia-linked account last week that specifically promoted Trump, then the Republican nominee. The Facebook group was named “Being Patriotic,” and promoted at least four pro-Trump or anti-Clinton rallies, as well as flash mob events in the key swing state of Florida in August 2016.
Further supporting the idea that the ads were targeted for political effectiveness, CNN reported late Wednesday, citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the ads, that at least one Russian-bought ad referencing Black Lives Matter was targeted to reach users in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Both cities were rocked by protests and drew national attention after black men were killed in interactions with police. A white officer shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, and 25-year-old Freddie Gray died after suffering a spinal injury while in police custody in Baltimore.
Some ads used images stolen from other Facebook users
A congressional staffer briefed on the content of the ads told TPM last week that some of the Russian-bought ads contained photos stolen from other Facebook users. The theft was one reason Facebook initially withheld copies of the ads from Congress, according to the staffer, as the users whose photos were stolen were essentially innocent bystanders to Russia’s online influence campaign.
The New York Times also reported that a Brazilian man said his own family photos were stolen to build a fake Facebook profile that promoted a website U.S. officials believe was an influence outlet created by Russian military intelligence.
Just how were these ads targeted?
Among the questions that remain for observers and investigators alike—Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called it the “million-dollar question”—is how the ads were targeted.
Warner on Wednesday questioned whether those who purchased the ads deployed them independently, or whether they had assistance.
“Did they know this just by following political news in America?” he said to CNN. “Did they geo-target both geography and by demographics in ways that at least at first blush appear pretty sophisticated?”
Warner said it was “too early to tell” whether members of Trump’s campaign were involved with the ad buy. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the committee’s chair, also said Wednesday that there was “no evidence yet” of any such collusion.
And how many people saw them?
We don’t yet know how effective the ads were, as it’s unclear just how many people saw the ads purchased by the Internet Research Agency, a Russian “troll farm,” or how widely they were distributed.
In Facebook’s initial statement on the ad buy, chief security officer Alex Stamos said the $100,000 ad spend took place “from June of 2015 to May of 2017,” was “associated with roughly 3,000 ads” and “connected to about 470 inauthentic accounts and Pages” in violation of Facebook policy.
“About one-quarter of these ads were geographically targeted,” Stamos said, but did not offer any analytics regarding how widely or frequently those ads were viewed.
The Daily Beast later reported, citing an expert on Facebook’s advertising systems, that the Russian ads were likely seen by somewhere between 23 million and 70 million people.
Will we ever get more answers?
It remains unclear whether Facebook will have to answer any of these questions in a public setting. Both Burr and Warner have expressed their interest in questioning company representatives in a public hearing, and the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday invited Facebook to testify in public on Nov. 1 on the subject. The company has not yet responded to that request.
The House Intelligence Committee announced Wednesday that it would hold a public hearing with tech company representatives about “how Russia used online tools and platforms to sow discord in and influence our election” in the “coming months,” but did not specify when the hearing would be, which companies were invited and if any had responded to its requests.
Congressional investigators also are raising the question of how Facebook will curtail other influence campaigns in the future, and if the company is even capable of acting to prevent such abuse. Zuckerberg’s response to Trump’s claiming Facebook “was always anti-Trump” indicates the company is not convinced its platform played a part in swaying the election.
“The facts suggest the greatest role Facebook played in the 2016 election was different from what most are saying,” he said, citing the company’s voter registration efforts and Clinton’s and Trump’s Facebook pages.
Zuckerberg spared barely a mention—and just one sentence—for the Russian ad buy that has attracted the attention of every entity investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Campaigns spent hundreds of millions advertising online to get their messages out even further,” he said. “That’s 1000x more than any problematic ads we’ve found.”