US Congress releases treasure trove of Russian Facebook ads

11 May 2018

The front of the US Capitol building in Washington DC. Image: Bill Chizek/Shutterstock

Russian ads posted on Facebook over a two-year period have been made available to the public.

Large-scale manipulation of social networks by nation states or other companies is a simple fact of life in 2018, and Facebook has been a big focus for investigation, particularly in relation to the US presidential election in 2016.

State interference, particularly from Russian actors, has been a major talking point for opposition politicians in the country.

Future Human

In September 2017, Facebook supplied US Congress with a dossier of ads placed on its platform during a two-year period beginning in April 2015. US special counsel Robert Mueller sparked the handover when he obtained a search warrant to aid the investigation of the FBI.

The ads were placed by the Russian group known as the Internet Research Agency, which targeted US voters on both Facebook and Instagram ahead of 2016’s election of Donald Trump to office.

Thousands of ads

This week, Democrats on the house intelligence committee in the US released 3,519 PDF documents consisting of images of ads placed by the Internet Research Agency and the metadata of the ads themselves, which included ad reach, who the ads were targeted to and how much was spent on the ad. 80,000 pieces of organic content were also traced back to the Internet Research Agency, which the Democrats on the house intelligence committee plan to publish at a later date.

Representative Adam Schiff said of the ads: “The only way we can begin to inoculate ourselves against a future attack is to see firsthand the types of messages, themes and imagery the Russians used to divide us.”

Some of the ads had been made public in September last year during hearings held by the house intelligence committee on Russian election interference. Subjects of the ads were diverse and, of course, divisive, with messages around gun control, Fox News and Black Lives Matter pushed on the content.

Detailed insights

The ads released this week provide the most comprehensive insights yet into the strategy of the Internet Research Agency, including promoting events organised by Americans who were not aware their rallies were being propped up by Russian disinformation campaigns.

In total, around 3.7m users clicked on the ads, according to Facebook. The ads garnered 33m impressions, going by the company’s metadata logs for each piece of content.

Racial tensions were stoked by the Internet Research Agency in a variety of ways. The mass shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston triggered the purchase of an ad seeking to capitalise on the tragedy, bought by a Russian account.

It read: “Sadness and shocking tragedy at historically black church in Charlestone [sic]. *CLICK TO GET LIVE UPDATES ON OUR PAGE*. What if America is stil [sic] a deeply racist country? What if the church is not a safe place anymore?”

Mexican Americans were also targeted, with ads criticising Trump posted in an effort to incite anger on both sides of the electoral spectrum.

13 Russian individuals were indicted by Mueller in February for their part in electoral interference in the US and conspiring to undermine “the lawful functions of the United States government through fraud and deceit”.

Facebook implementing changes

Facebook released a statement yesterday (10 May), detailing steps it has been taking to mitigate these issues. “In the run-up to the 2016 elections, we were focused on the kinds of cybersecurity attacks typically used by nation states; for example, phishing and malware attacks. And we were too slow to spot this type of information operations interference. Since then, we’ve made important changes to prevent bad actors from using misinformation to undermine the democratic process.

“This will never be a solved problem because we’re up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries. But we are making steady progress.”

The changes include ad transparency efforts, targeting updates, ad verification and significant security investments.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects