Fake Russian accounts spent $100k on ads ahead of Trump's 2016 presidential election win

Around 3,000 ads bought between June 2015 and May 2017

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For an election that was supposed to exclusively concern citizens of the United States, the word “Russia” comes up more than is ideal when it’s discussed. President Trump is still being investigated for alleged campaign ties to Russia, and whether or not anything emerges on that front or not, it seems increasingly apparent that there was overseas interference – even if it was unsolicited.

The latest bit of evidence comes from Facebook, which has gone on something of a Damascan-style journey in its relationship to the US election. First Zuckerberg claimed Facebook influencing the election was “a pretty crazy idea”, then when that didn’t wash, the company came up with all kinds of solutions to the fake news frenzy.

Likewise, back in July, Facebook said it had found “no evidence that Russian actors bought ads on Facebook in connection with the election”. Two months later, it’s now found some. In a blog post entitled “An update on Information Operations of Facebook” (they really need to work on their clickbait headlines), the company revealed that around $100,000 in ad buys seemed to originate from nearly 500 affiliated accounts “likely operated out of Russia”.

Interestingly, though, these adverts neither reference the US election directly nor back a specific candidate. Rather, they aimed to work by “amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum”, pushing topics as diverse as LGBT rights to immigration and gun control. Roughly a quarter was geographically targeted.

Facebook had touched on this particular method of disruption in a white paper published back in April describing it as: “co-ordinated activity by inauthentic accounts with the intent of manipulating political discussion (e.g., by discouraging specific parties from participating in discussion, or amplifying sensationalistic voices over others)”.

What does this mean for the Trump Russia connection?

Actually very little directly, for a couple of reasons. First, Trump – or any other candidate – isn’t mentioned in the adverts purchased by the fake accounts. Second, $100,000 of ad spending in a country where 130 million people voted doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in any real sense, no matter how targeted. Let’s not forget that Facebook political advertising was on target to pass $1 billion for the US election. In that context, $100,000 is chump change.

On the other hand, this is evidence of something far bigger at play. Few would deny that the Western world is in a period of populist political flux across the spectrum, with dull centrists taking an electoral beating wherever they stand. Amplifying messages on controversial touch stones – left and right – does seem to be an excellent way of dividing communities and driving the popularity of maverick insurgents. Whether or not it directly influences election results or is sowing seeds of discontent for the long run is debatable – but there’s a reason people say that you should never discuss politics or religion.

Facebook seems to be tacitly acknowledging it has a hand in all of this, and is trying to reel in its own influence a little bit – especially now it has two billion users worldwide. This was signposted by June’s change of mission statement, but it’s difficult to put a genie back in the bottle. It needs to show willing, or it risks having regulation taken out of its hands: especially if Zuckerberg throws his hat into the presidential ring in 2020.

Images: Anthony Quintano used under Creative Commons

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