Russians appeared to be following a timeworn but effective divide-and-conquer strategy.
Social network Facebook said it will hire 1,000 additional ad reviewers to crack down on future attempts to interfere with elections across the world.
The selection of divisive issues, ranging from racism to LGBTQ rights, by Russian operatives was perceived as a way to skew US sentiment in the lead-up to last November’s elections, Facebook has revealed.
‘Currency alone isn’t a good way of identifying suspicious activity because the overwhelming majority of advertisers who pay in Russian currency, like the overwhelming majority of people who access Facebook from Russia, aren’t doing anything wrong’
– ELLIOT SCHRAGE
The whole saga kicks a hornet’s nest of speculation about alleged collusion between the Trump camp and Russian interests.
Facebook said in recent weeks that it believed Russian agents bought 3,000 ads last year around the time of the US presidential elections. The company has submitted its data to Congress in a move that US president Donald Trump described as “anti-Trump”.
Facebook’s platform has more than 5m paying advertisers, making it difficult to enforce policies.
It intends to invest in software to flag abuse of its ad targeting platform, and will also hire 3,000 more people to speed up the removal of videos that show shocking material such as murders and suicide.
“Reviewing ads means assessing not just the content of an ad, but the context in which it was bought and the intended audience – so we’re changing our ads review system to pay more attention to these signals,” it said.
We can’t go on forever, with suspicious minds
Facebook’s vice-president of policy and communications, Elliot Schrage, said that an estimated 10m people in the US saw the ads and around 44pc of ad impressions were before the US election in November.
For 50pc of the ads, less than $3 was spent. No more than $1,000 was spent for 99pc of the ads.
Schrage said that despite a rigorous process that sees millions of ads reviewed each week and around 8m people reporting ads daily, the ad targeting system devised by Facebook can still be abused.
To this end, the company plans to strengthen enforcement, make its system more transparent, increase requirements for authenticity, and establish industry standards and best practices.
“Some of the ads were paid for in Russian currency,” Schrage said. “Currency alone isn’t a good way of identifying suspicious activity because the overwhelming majority of advertisers who pay in Russian currency, like the overwhelming majority of people who access Facebook from Russia, aren’t doing anything wrong. We did use this as a signal to help identify these ads but it wasn’t the only signal. We are continuing to refine our techniques for identifying the kinds of ads in question. We’re not going to disclose more details because we don’t want to give bad actors a roadmap for avoiding future detection.”
He said that the right to speak out on global issues that cross borders is an important principle, and that organisations such as UNICEF and Oxfam depend on the ability to communicate.
However, he said steps must be taken to prevent any possible abuse of the system or attempts to sow division.
“The threats we’re confronting are bigger than any one company, or even any one industry. The kind of malicious interference we’re seeing requires everyone working together, across business, government and civil society, to share information and arrive at the best responses.
“We have been working with many others in the technology industry, including with Google and Twitter, on a range of elements related to this investigation. We also have a long history of working together to fight online threats and develop best practices on other issues, such as child safety and counterterrorism. And we will continue all of this work,” Schrage said.
He added that Facebook cannot be used to undermine free speech, public debate or free and fair elections.
“The 2016 US election was the first where evidence has been widely reported that foreign actors sought to exploit the internet to influence voter behaviour.
“We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can. We know that our experience is only a small piece of a much larger puzzle. Congress and the special counsel are best placed to put these pieces together because they have much broader investigative power to obtain information from other sources.”