Facebook Brexit probe finds just three Russian-bought adverts

14 Dec 2017

Facebook app. Image: sitthiphong/Shutterstock

Facebook’s own internal investigation into the possibility of Russian interference with the Brexit referendum has unearthed a mere three adverts.

As the advertising practices and policies of social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook are under the spotlight, more governments are asking bigger questions of the firms.

The latter company responded to a request for data by the UK Electoral Commission, which was investigating the possibility that Russia may have bought advertisements prior to the June 2016 Brexit referendum in an effort to sway results.

Only three adverts found, Facebook says

According to the BBC, Facebook said that it looked into activity and accounts it had previously linked to a Russian organisation known as the Internet Research Agency.

It said it found no more than three adverts, which cost less than $1 to post in total. The adverts, Facebook maintained, reached no more than 200 users based in the UK in a four-day timespan.

Facebook said that all three of the advertisements were also targeted to US audiences and were related to immigration, and not specifically the Brexit referendum itself.

The Kremlin has denied any interference with the referendum process. This result is a sharp contrast to the thousands of advertisements placed by the Internet Research Agency during the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook told the UK Electoral Commission: “We strongly support the commission’s efforts to regulate and enforce political campaign finance rules in the United Kingdom, and we take the commission’s request very seriously.”

MP says Facebook needs to be more thorough

MP Damian Collins, chair of the UK digital, culture, media and sport committee, said that Facebook only responded with regards to around 470 accounts and pages run by the Internet Research Agency.

He said: “No work has been done by Facebook to look for other fake accounts and pages that could be linked to Russian-backed agencies and which were active during the EU referendum, as I requested.”

In terms of other tech firms subject to the request, a spokesperson for the commission told TechCrunch that Google and Twitter had responded, and their cooperation was welcomed.

Twitter found that Russian-backed accounts spent approximately $1,000 to purchase six ads related to Brexit on its platform between 15 April and 23 June 2016. The company declined to disclose the reach of the adverts.

Google said it found no evidence of such tampering on its systems.

Facebook app. Image: sitthiphong/Shutterstock

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