In a stunning reversal, Facebook just admitted selling political advertising to a “troll farm” controlled by Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Investigators at Time Magazine first uncovered the Russian advertising buys from intelligence sources in May, but Facebook denied involvement.
Now, Facebook is telling Congressional investigators that at least $100,000 worth of advertising was sold to hundreds of users connected to the “Internet Research Agency,” a 600-person pro-Putin propaganda machine which was caught pushing fake news in America years ago. The Washington Post reports:
Representatives of Facebook told congressional investigators Wednesday that it has discovered it sold ads during the U.S. presidential election to a shadowy Russian company seeking to target voters, according to several people familiar with the company’s findings.
A Facebook official said “there is evidence that some of the accounts are linked to a troll farm in St. Petersburg, referred to as the Internet Research Agency, though we have no way to independently confirm.”
Facebook officials reported that they traced the ad sales, totaling $100,000, to a Russian “troll farm” with a history of pushing pro-Kremlin propaganda, these people said.
New York Magazine first exposed the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg – Putin’s troll factory – just days before Donald Trump entered the Presidential campaign in June 2015. Just days before they could publish, a Russian propaganda hit piece accused their journalist of associating with a Nazi.
The Internet Research Agency, of course, denied being state-run.
Time Magazine’s report on Russia buying Facebook ads said that they targeted specific influencers in last year’s election. The Russian buyers’ goal was to get free reach for fake news out of organic sharing from confused, but popular American Facebook influencers, who re-shared their fake content, thereby becoming “useful idiots.”
Counterintelligence officials, meanwhile, have picked up evidence that Russia tried to target particular influencers during the election season who they reasoned would help spread the damaging stories. These officials have seen evidence of Russia using its algorithmic techniques to target the social media accounts of particular reporters, senior intelligence officials tell TIME. “It’s not necessarily the journal or the newspaper or the TV show,” says the senior intelligence official. “It’s the specific reporter that they find who might be a little bit slanted toward believing things, and they’ll hit him” with a flood of fake news stories.
Russia plays in every social media space. The intelligence officials have found that Moscow’s agents bought ads on Facebook to target specific populations with propaganda. “They buy the ads, where it says sponsored by–they do that just as much as anybody else does,” says the senior intelligence official.
It’s illegal for a foreign person or government to spend money on a federal candidate or election.
Four years ago, Russian military outlined the Gerasimov doctrine, a strategy of hybrid-warfare which – as Politico explained in-depth today – has the goal of levelling the playing field with stronger opponents like the United States.
Russia’s attack plan is to sew confusion and fear in foreign populations by spreading fake news propaganda to confuse, and supporting warring political factions to intensify political divisions.
While the amount of known Russian spending to help Trump in last year’s election is not astronomical, it begs the questions:
How did Russians know whom to target with their ads?
Did they have American assistance or more specifically, did they have help from the Trump Campaign and its associates?
Grant Stern is an Editor-At-Large for OccupyDemocrats and published author. His new Meet the Candidates 2020 book series is distributed by Simon and Schuster. He's also mortgage broker, community activist and radio personality in Miami, Florida., as well as the producer of the Dworkin Report podcast. Grant is also an occasional contributor to Raw Story, Alternet, and the DC Report. Find out more at grantstern.com.