Amid ongoing concern over the role of disinformation in the 2016 election, Facebook said Wednesday it found that more than 5,000 ads, costing more than $150,000, had been placed on its network between June 2015 and May 2017 from “inauthentic accounts” and Pages, likely from Russia.
The ads didn’t directly mention the election or the candidates, according to a blog post by Facebook’s chief security officer Alex Stamos, but focused on “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum—touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights.” Facebook declined to discuss additional details about the ads.
Facebook says it had given the information to authorities investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. “We know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform,” Stamos wrote in the post. “We believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse, and require advertisers on our platform to follow both our policies and all applicable laws.”
Speculation has swirled about the role Facebook played spreading fake news during the 2016 election. Senator Mark Warner, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has gone so far as to wonder whether President Trump’s tech and data team collaborated with Russian actors to target fake news at American voters in key geographic areas. “We need information from the companies, as well as we need to look into the activities of some of the Trump digital campaign activities,” Warner said recently.
Brad Parscale, digital director of the Trump campaign, has agreed to an interview with the House Intelligence Committee, and maintains he is “unaware of any Russian involvement in the digital and data operations of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.”
Wednesday’s revelation is a new wrinkle in the ongoing Russia investigations. In July, Facebook told WIRED it had found no indication of Russian entities buying entities during the election.
In the larger context of political ad spending, even $150,000 is a nominal amount. According to a report by Borrell Associates, digital political-ad spending totaled roughly $1.4 billion n 2016. And yet, this finding exposes what seems to be a coordinated effort to spread misinformation about key election issues in targeted states.
Facebook is remaining tight lipped about the methods it used to identify the fraudulent accounts and Pages that it has since suspended. One search for ads purchased from US internet addresses set to the Russian language turned up $50,000 worth of spending on 2,200 ads. Facebook said about one-quarter of the suspect ads were geographically targeted, with more of those running in 2015 than 2016. According to the Washington Post, some accounts may be linked to a content farm called Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg.
Facebook said it is implementing changes to prevent similar abuse. Among other things, it’s looking for ways to combat so-called cloaking in which ads that appear benign redirect users to malicious or misleading websites once people click through. That allows bad actors to circumvent Facebook’s ad review process.
But while Facebook may be able to limit what people can and can’t buy on its platform, it doesn’t change the fact that social media has created a stage for anyone looking to spread false information online, with or without ads. As the $150,000 figure indicates, this finding is but a small fraction of a much larger problem.