Facebook’s Russian Ad Sale: More of what we already knew?

Facebook announced Wednesday that it had found nearly 500 “inauthentic” accounts and pages linked to Russian sources that spent $100,000 on approximately 3,000 political advertisements. In a broader search, the company found that an additional $50,000 was spent on 2,200 “potentially politically related” advertisements.

According to the announcement by Facebook’s Chief Security Officer, Alex Stamos, the “vast majority” of the ads purchased by these accounts between June 2015 to May 2017 did not reference the 2016 U.S. presidential election, voting, or candidates.

Rather, the ads and accounts appeared to focus 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,” Stamos said

Stamos also said one-quarter of the ads in question were geographically targeted and, of that, more of the advertisements ran in 2015 than 2016.

Now what?

Stamos said the 470 unauthentic accounts and pages had been terminated and the company has shared its findings with U.S. authorities, including the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, both of which are also investigating alleged Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

It is yet to be seen how much of an effect, if any, these advertisements had on the election. However, U.S. intelligence officials warn that this mass purchasing of advertising is just one proven example of the influence anyone with money can have on what is seen by millions on social media platforms.

Ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), said in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Wednesday that the committee received a preliminary briefing on the matter but that the report confirmed what the committee “already knew.”

“We, I think, already knew that the Russians were using paid social media trolls to try to influence the election, try to sow discord …,” Schiff said. “But we want to explore, not only with Facebook but with other social media platforms as well to what evidence, to what degree. $100,000 may not seem like it’s not a huge amount, but at the same time that’s millions of people seeing or liking or passing on this information and that can be influential.”

Facebook is in the process of implementing techniques that would  detect inauthentic accounts,   pages that post spam and clickbait headlines that consistently post objectively false content masked as news. The company hopes to improve these practices to catch and deactivate these accounts before they are created.

Facebook’s report warranted a response from Federal Elections Commission (FEC) Member Ellen Weintraub, who tweeted her letter to FEC Chairman Steven Walther asking for an update to rules regarding disclaimers of political advertisements on the Internet. In her letter, Weintraub said it is “imperative” the rules be updated to ensure the public is aware of what groups or individuals purchase advertising.

“It is our duty to have these changes in place in time to inform the 2018 elections,” Weintraub said in the letter. “Given the revelations of the past few days regarding the secret purchase of thousands of Internet political ads by foreign actors during the 2016 presidential election, there can no longer reasonably be any doubt that we need to revise and modernize our internet disclaimer regulations.”

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