What we can learn from the 3,500 Russian Facebook ads set to stir up US politics – TechCrunch
On Thursday, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released a huge new collection of Russian government-funded Facebook political ads targeting American voters. While we had previously seen a cross-section of the ads through previous publications by the committee, the breadth of ideological manipulation is fully visible in the 3,500+ newly published ads – and that doesn’t even count unpublished unpaid content that shared the same divisive goals.
Russia tried to use social media as a weapon to drive a wedge between Americans and influence the 2016 elections. They created fake accounts, pages, and communities to distribute divisive content and videos online, and to mobilize real Americans.
Here’s how it works: pic.twitter.com/JqKSm5saAi
– Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) May 10, 2018
After looking at the ads, which stretch from 2015 to the end of 2017, some clear trends emerged.
Russia focuses on black Americans
Many, many of these ads were aimed at black Americans. Out of the fairly large selection of ads we checked, black Americans were clearly of particular interest, likely to escalate latent racial tensions.
Many of these ads appeared as memorials to black Americans killed by police officers. Others just wanted to stir up black pride, like one with an Angela Davis quote. An advertisement published by Black Matters was directed at residents of Ferguson, Missouri in June 2015 and contained only the lyrics to Tupac’s “California Love”. At the time, many ads targeted black Facebook users in Baltimore and the St. Louis area.
Some Instagram ads targeted black voters interested in Black Power, Malcolm X, and the new Black Panther party with Facebook profile information. In the days leading up to November 8, 2016, other anti-Clinton message ads were targeted specifically at black Americans.
Not all contributions were divisive (although most were)
While most of the ads had obvious ideological goals, these posts were occasionally interrupted by more neutral content. The less controversial or call-to-action style posts were likely designed to buffer the politically divisive content and help build and grow an account over time.
For accounts that have grown over several years, some “neutral” posts have probably been useful in making them appear legitimate and building trust with followers. Some posts aimed at LGBT users and other identity-based groups have only shared positive news specific to those communities.
Ads targeted at media consumers and geographic areas
Some of the ads we came across targeted Buzzfeed readers, even though inexplicably they were more meme-oriented than political. Others focused on Facebook users who liked the “Black Voices” section of the Huffington Post or Sean Hannity.
Many of the ads targeting black voters were targeted at large US cities with large black populations (such as Baltimore and New Orleans). Other geocentric ads took advantage of Texas pride and urged Texans to secede.
Conservatives have been targeted on many issues
We already knew this from the ad previews, but the new ad collection makes it clear that Conservative Americans were regularly targeted from a number of stakeholders. This targeting focused on fueling patriotic and sometimes nationalist sentiments with anti-Clinton, gun rights, anti-immigration, and religious attitudes. Some bespoke accounts spoke directly to veterans and conservative Christians. Libertarians were also targeted separately.
Events gathered competing causes
Event-based posts became quite common among the ads bought in Russia in 2016. The day after the election, one event called for an anti-Trump rally in Union Square, while another ad called for Trump supporters to gather in front of Trump Tower. In another instance, the ads advertised both a pro-Beyoncé and an anti-Beyoncé event in New York City.
Candidate ads were mostly pro-Trump, anti-Clinton
In line with the intelligence service’s assessment of Russia’s intentions during the 2016 US election, it appeared that posts criticizing Hillary Clinton were gaining ground among the candidates. Pro-Trump ads were fairly common, although other ads also fueled anti-Trump sentiment. Few of the ads appeared to be against Bernie Sanders, and some rallied support for Sanders even after Clinton won the nomination. An August 2016 complaint from the Williams & Kalvin account condemned both presidential candidates and possibly in an effort to discourage turnout among black voters. In this and other cases, voters called for the election to be completely ignored.
As efforts like the Honest Ads Act grow to combat the influence of foreign social media on US politics, the scope and variety of House Intel’s release today make it clear that Americans would do well to take a break before they do social platforms deal with provocative, partisan ideological content – at least if it comes from unknown sources.