Facebook: Russia-based ‘troll farm’ targeted US voters with divisive ads

Facebook: Russia-based ‘troll farm’ targeted US voters with divisive ads

Social media giant tells US authorities it found some $100,000 worth of ads likely originating in St. Petersburg touching on issues like refugees and LGBT rights

Illustrative: Facebook notifications on a smartphone. (JaysonPhotography/Istock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Facebook notifications on a smartphone. (JaysonPhotography/Istock by Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — Hundreds of fake Facebook accounts, probably run from Russia, spent about $100,000 on ads aimed at stirring up divisive issues such as gun control and race relations during the 2016 US presidential election, the social network said Wednesday.

Although the number of ads is relatively small, the disclosure provides a more detailed peek into what investigators believe was a targeted effort by Russians to influence US politics during the campaign, this time through social media.

The 470 accounts appeared to come from a notorious “troll farm,” a St. Petersburg-based organization known for promoting pro-Russian government positions via fake accounts, according to two people familiar with the investigation. The people were granted anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.

In all, the accounts purchased some 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017.

While they ads didn’t specifically reference the election, a candidate or voting, they nevertheless allowed “divisive messages” to be amplified via the social media platform, the company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, said in a statement.

The names of the suspended pages were not released, but some included words such as “refugee” and “patriot,” Reuters reported.

Stamos said the ads touched “on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.”

This photo taken on April 17, 2017 shows Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as he delivers the keynote address at Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California. (Justin Sullivan/AFP)

Facebook has turned over its findings to federal authorities investigating Russian interference in the US presidential election. Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is charged with overseeing Russian meddling in the US election and any potential coordination with associates of President Donald Trump.

Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said that Facebook briefed the panel’s staff on Wednesday, but he still wants to know more.

“I have a lot more questions for Facebook, and I’ve got a lot of questions for Twitter,” Warner said, noting that “we’ve got Twitter coming in.” He did not say when a meeting with representatives from Twitter might occur other than “soon.”

A spokeswoman for Twitter declined comment Wednesday evening.

Warner said he also wants to know more about the content of the ads pushed out by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency and whether they targeted specific voters or locations in the US.

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.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Facebook’s disclosure confirmed what many lawmakers investigating Russian interference in the US election had long suspected.

Ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) delivers his opening statement as former Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan testifies before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Capitol Hill, May 23, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images AFP)

“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,” he said.

The fake accounts were discovered during a company review of ad buys that was spurred by a broader investigation the company initiated into Russian meddling after the election, Stamos said.

In addition to the 470 accounts that appeared to be run from Russia, Stamos said its investigators also discovered an additional $50,000 in spending via 2,200 ads that “might have originated in Russia,” even including ads purchased by accounts with IP addresses in the US but set to Russian in the language settings.

Stamos said the accounts had been shut down for being inauthentic.

The dollar amount of ad spending identified by Facebook is an infinitesimal amount compared to the total amount of advertising spending during the election. According to ad tracker Borrell Associates, more than $1.4 billion was spent during the 2016 election cycle on digital advertising alone. That figure includes spending on national, state and local elections.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, who also serves on the House intelligence committee, said Facebook’s disclosures help to “fill in with more color some of the lines that exist,” but he would like to know more about the sophistication of the ads. He also wants to know if the content of the ads smacked of Russian propaganda.

“We know they had a cyber operation, we suspect US persons may have been involved, now we know a US company was used. So now we need to see if there are dots that connect,” he said.

The company has come under intense pressure since the election to curb the flow of false information. After the election, it updated its advertising policy to say it wouldn’t run spots that are “illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake news.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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