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Fake Russian Facebook accounts bought $ 100,000 in political advertising

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As new evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Facebook announced on Wednesday that it had identified more than $ 100,000 worth of divisive ads on hot topics bought by a dark Kremlin-affiliated Russian company.

Most of the 3,000 ads weren’t related to specific candidates but instead focused on divisive social issues such as race, gay rights, gun control and immigration, according to a post on Facebook by Alex Stamos, the company’s chief security officer. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, were linked to around 470 fake accounts and pages that the company said it had closed.

Facebook officials said the fake accounts were created by a Russian company called Internet Research Agency, which is known for using “troll” accounts to post on social media and comment on news websites.

The reveal adds to the evidence of the broad scope of the Russian campaign of influence, which American intelligence agencies concluded was intended to harm Hillary Clinton and boost Donald J. Trump during the election. Multiple investigations into Russian interference and the possibility that the Trump campaign was somehow partnered with Russia have overshadowed the first eight months of Mr Trump’s presidency.

Facebook officials on Wednesday briefed the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees investigating Russian intervention in the American elections. Said that Facebook is also working with investigators for Robert S. Mueller III, the special investigator, Mr Stamos said: “We have shared our findings with the US authorities investigating these issues and will continue to work with them as necessary . “

Mr Stamos wrote that while some of the ads explicitly mentioned the two candidates, most instead focused on issues that polarized voters: “Divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum – ranging from LGBT issues to racial issues to touch immigration law on guns. “

Facebook did not publish any of the ads, nor did they indicate how many people saw them. But Mr Trump regularly made open comments on these issues during the election campaign, condemning “political correctness” and rallying his supporters on the right.

Credit…Doug Mills / The New York Times

In its review of election-related advertisements, Facebook said it also found 2,200 additional ads valued at $ 50,000 that had less secure evidence of a Russian connection. For example, some of these ads were purchased from Facebook accounts with internet protocol addresses that appeared to be in the United States but the language was set to Russian.

In a January report, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency concluded that, under the direct direction of President Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian government was responsible for hacking democratic targets and killing thousands of E. – E-mails and other documents in an attempt to harm Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and damage her reputation.

The report also found that hundreds of Russian “trolls” or paid social media users posted anti-Clinton messages. But it didn’t mention Facebook or the question of advertising.

The January intelligence report said the Internet Research Agency’s “likely financier” was “a close ally of Putin with ties to Russian intelligence.” Featured in 2015 by the New York Times Magazine, the company is based in St. Petersburg and uses its small army of trolls to spread messages of support for Russian government policies.

The revelations can only add to the political skirmish in Washington over Russia’s role in the elections. Mr Trump has often dismissed the Russian hacker story as “fake news” and was annoyed at every suggestion that Mr Putin helped him to victory. Although news reports have uncovered many meetings and contacts between Trump employees and Russians, so far there has been no evidence of collusion in the hacking attacks or other Russian activities.

California MP Adam B. Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a telephone interview that the Facebook disclosure “quantifies Russian use of at least one social media platform with a granularity that we did not have before.” . “He said the committee had been in contact with Facebook for some time, adding,” I don’t think this is the final word from Facebook on this matter or our investigation into social media. “

Mr Schiff said he had other questions for Facebook, including when the company first became aware of the problem, what warning signs it found, how sophisticated the Russian operation was, and what steps Facebook is taking to avoid such activities in the future to protect.

“Facebook clearly does not want to decide what is true and what is not,” said Schiff. “But they have a civil law responsibility to inform their users as best as possible if they are manipulated by a foreign actor.”

Suspicions that Russia were involved in running Facebook ads were first mentioned in an article in Time magazine in May, but Wednesday’s announcement was the company’s first admission of the problem.

Facebook, which offers advertisers a sophisticated level of targeting, has been the focus of a storm over the role it played in spreading hoaxes and other misleading information during the campaign. The company admitted in April that fake accounts were a problem and said it accepted intelligence on the matter but avoided calling Russia by its name.

Mr Stamos’ post on Wednesday was more direct, saying the fake Facebook accounts linked to the ads “were likely operated out of Russia”.

After initially denying that fake news about the service influenced the election, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has gradually come to believe that the company needs to do more. Facebook has implemented a number of steps to combat fake content, including recruiting outside reviewers to review and flag down dubious articles.

However, the new measures will not have a direct impact on Facebook ads. Advertisers pay for certain Facebook posts to appear high in the news feeds of the target audience.

The audience for an ad can be selected based on general factors, such as middle-aged American men, or very specific criteria, such as mothers who live in Minneapolis and like churches and the Minnesota Twins.

This targeting ability is valuable for political campaigning, and the company is actively reaching out to candidates around the world teaching them how to use Facebook to get their message across, including through paid advertising.

One question that underlies the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is whether Russia-sponsored operators would have needed guidance from American policy experts. Facebook said some of the ads linked to Russian accounts were targeted to specific geographic areas, which could raise the question of whether anyone helped target that targeting.

Federal law prohibits foreign governments, businesses, and citizens from spending money to influence American elections. Facebook’s disclosure could add an extra element to the possible crimes that are being investigated by Mr Mueller.

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