Russia's fake news Facebook campaign may have reached 70 million Americans

Julio Alvarez  Getty Images

Julio Alvarez Getty Images

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

Facebook said that 3,000 ads and 470 "inauthentic" accounts and pages spread polarising views on topics including immigration, race and gay rights.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he has believed since the beginning of his panel's investigation that Russians were using "the very social media sites that we rely on for virtually everything - the Facebooks, Googles and Twitters ... to intervene in our elections".

Facebook officials revealed that Russian "troll farms" - likely operated by the Kremlin - had purchased $100,000 in ads, just a few months after saying they had seen no evidence of Russian purchases.

A quarter of the Russian-linked ads, Stamos added, were geographically targeted at specific Facebook audiences in the US, and majority ran in 2015 before the first primaries and caucuses when the GOP and Democratic presidential fields were still packed with multiple candidates. "If they want to get into the RNC, they will get in", he said.

In its January assessment of Russia's election meddling, US intelligence agencies determined the "likely financier" of the Internet Research Agency's army of "professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close [Russian President Vladimir] Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence".

Warner said lawmakers could potentially pursue reforms requiring ads on social media to tell users who is behind the content, similar to existing laws governing other political advertisements.

The ad spending linked to Russian Federation and disclosed by Facebook was relatively small.

Richard Newman, a lawyer specialising in online marketing, said the scale of the issue was too small to cause Facebook any significant headache - but the company did need to get on top of the issue.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK Facebook has suspended 470 accounts found to be spreading disinformation and divisive views most likely as part of an orchestrated Russian campaign to influence U.S. public opinion.

According to The Daily Beast, while Facebook admitted its platform was abused, it did not release the ads in question. We've seen them take down certain pages.

In response to Facebook's findings, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has affirmed that Russian Federation was not involved with the campaign.

One of the main focal points in the fight against fake news is a company called the Internet Research Agency: in 2013, hackers leaked internal documents that showed it employed 600 people across Russian Federation, whilst ex-employees have spoken about their experiences creating fake social media accounts and using them to circulate propaganda.

In a blog post, Facebook's chief security officer Alex Stamos said that the accounts appeared to be part of an organised campaign to sow disinformation.

Days after Donald Trump won the election, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dismissed the idea that the platform had been used to manipulate voters as "pretty insane". Influence-watchers say one technique that foreign powers use to try to shape the American information environment is to amplify divisions that already exist.

Facebook has conceded its network was exploited by governments and other interests intent on manipulating public opinion, including during the presidential elections in the United States and France. In August, Facebook said it will no longer allow Pages that repeatedly share false news to advertise on Facebook. Ex-employees who have gone public with their experiences at the company in Internet postings and in media interviews have said their work entailed creating fake Twitter and Facebook accounts and using them to circulate pro-Kremlin propaganda.

Facebook wants to have it both ways: It talks up the efficiency of its hyperspecific ad-targeting platform and its advanced AI functions, while also avoiding specifics when expedient.

USA election law bars foreign nationals and foreign entities from spending money to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, though non-US citizens may generally advertise on issues. "And if, in fact, there was foreign money that went into advertising in U.S. elections, that's a Justice Department thing to look at, it's an FEC question, because foreign money can not be used on behalf of elections".

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