Divisive Russian-backed Facebook ads released to the public

Ads released by US lawmakers appear to have targeted both liberals and conservatives on hot-button issues and attempted to sow discord during election

US lawmakers have publicly released a selection of Facebook ads bought by Russian operatives and a list of imposter Twitter accounts, revealing how foreign actors sought to sow division among American citizens.

The ads and Twitter profiles appeared to target liberals and conservatives on a range of hot-button topics, including police brutality, immigration, race relations, Islamophobia and LGBT rights.

One pro-Trump Facebook ad called for the “removal of Hillary Clinton from the presidential ballot” while another blamed Black Lives Matter for a “gruesome attack on police”. Meanwhile, a fake gay rights’ account praised Bernie Sanders as a “hero”, and an anti-Trump profile advertised a “not my president” rally after the election, which attracted interest from nearly 50,000 people on Facebook and said: “Racism won, Ignorance won, Sexual assault won … STOP TRUMP!”

Facebook and Twitter turned over the ads and accounts to lawmakers as part of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. All three companies were called to testify before Congress over Russian ad campaigns in several hearings this week.

Facebook initially said in early September that a Russian operative had spent $100,000 on 3,000 ads – seen by up to 10 million people – promoting divisive social and political messages and pledged to turn them over to congressional investigators. Twitter and Google then carried out their own internal investigations and identified similar activity on their platforms.

This week, the companies admitted the Russian-backed content’s reach was much farther than had previously been disclosed. According to Facebook’s prepared testimony, Russia-backed posts reached as many as 126 million Americans on their platform during and after the 2016 presidential election. Twitter said it had found 2,752 accounts linked to Russian operatives – more than 10 times greater than it had previously informed lawmakers.

Both companies tried to pre-empt possible regulation by announcing measures to improve transparency around political advertising and clamp down on foreign interference.

In the ad disclosures, which marked the first official release of social media accounts linked to Russia, lawmakers published a 65-page list featuring the names of thousands of Twitter accounts that have since been suspended. Some were fake names that appeared to be mimicking individuals while others seemed to be representing specific causes or groups, both progressive and conservative.

Those included accounts labeled @March_for_Trump, @MUSLIMS_IN_USA, @BleepThePolice, @blackmattersus, @BLACKPANTHER_TX, @Blk_Voice, @GUNS4LIFE_ME, @NewYorkDem and @PeeOnHillary. Others had generic-sounding names, such as @Best_food_ever, @Britney_Carlos and @GayleHappyMom.

An aide puts out examples of the Facebook ads. According to the company’s prepared testimony, Russia-backed posts reached as many as 126 million Americans.
An aide puts out examples of the Facebook ads. According to the company’s prepared testimony, Russia-backed posts reached as many as 126 million Americans. Photograph: Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters

Some appeared to be impersonating news and media accounts, possibly to spread propaganda or fake news. @ChicagoDailyNew, @DailyNewsDenver, @KansasDailyNews, @NewspeakDaily, @DallasTopNews, @MissouriNewsUS, @NatPolNews and @RichmondVoice were included in the disclosures.

With the accounts now suspended, it is difficult to know how much of a reach the profiles had on the site. Recent leaks have revealed that some fake activist accounts appeared to have a large audience, promoted real-world rallies and interacted with legitimate protesters.

A Russian account called Blacktivist, for example, helped organize and promote rallies against police brutality, where mothers of men killed by law enforcement gave speeches.

Representatives also noted that one fake conservative account called @TEN_GOP, which purported to be representing Tennessee Republicans, was promoted by Trump campaign staffers, including Kelly Anne Conway and the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Some of the Facebook ads appeared to reach large groups of people, according to the screenshots included in the disclosures.

A page called Secured Borders, which said, “Every man should stand for our borders! Join!” was labeled a “news and media” page and was liked by more than 130,000 people. Nearly 250,000 people liked a “community” page called Don’t Shoot, which criticized police brutality.

A page called United Muslims of America advertised a “Support Hillary” event, saying, “The time has come to understand one simple thing: we the American muslims are as American.” On Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, an account called “american.made” encouraged Trump supporters who want to #MakeAmericaGreatAgain to send photos of their children to publish on the account.

At a Tuesday hearing, Democratic senator Al Franken berated Colin Stretch, vice-president and general counsel at Facebook, saying: “How did Facebook, which prides itself on being able to process billions of data points and instantly transform them into personal connections for its users, somehow not make the connection that electoral ads paid for in roubles were coming from Russia? Those are two data points! American political ads and Russian money: roubles. How could you not connect those two dots?”


Olivia Solon and Sam Levin in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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