Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Russia Paid in Rubles to Target U.S. Patriots, Confederates, Fans of Malcolm X

“These people were not amateurs,” Facebook’s lawyer tells Congress

A page for people who “support our brave Police Officers” targeting wives of policemen.  A red banner that reads “I’m black and I’m proud!” aimed at people interested in Malcolm X. A post for “South United,” geared for fans of the Confederate Flag.

Russian actors paid rubles for each of those ads on Facebook’s  news feed ahead of the U.S. election, targeting niche groups across a wide span of the electorate, according to the most detailed disclosure to date of the methods used to inflame divisions, sow discord and influence voting.

A message showing a region of the U.S. from Texas to Florida targeted those interested in the Confederate flag.
Source: House Intelligence Committee

The messages  were aimed at specific racial and affinity groups as well as people who had indicated interest in divisive political issues as varied as civil rights, police brutality, and the Confederate flag. And those ads racked up hundreds of thousands of clicks and millions of “impressions,” a metric used to determine an ad’s effectiveness, set ad prices and, ultimately, determine the colossal market valuations of digital ad sellers Facebook Inc. and Google.

Legislators released images of the ads, along with information on how much they cost, when they ran and the audiences to which they were aimed, amid a Wednesday hearing of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.

"These exhibits were not selected for political gain or shock value,” said Representative Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, “but to provide those viewing this hearing a clear example of what we seek to discuss this afternoon.”

The House hearing marked the third grilling in two days of top lawyers from Facebook, Twitter Inc., and Alphabet Inc.’s Google over how their platforms were used by Russian actors. In an earlier hearing on Wednesday, Senators ripped into the tech companies for their laggard response to identifying propaganda, fake news and illegal ads on their platforms.

A message targeting fans of Malcolm X promotes a group focused on “building up our communities”
Source: House Intelligence Committee

The promoted Facebook pages were scripted for people from across the political spectrum, including the far-right, and betray a sophisticated understanding of Facebook’s targeting capabilities. An ad for “Woke Blacks,” for instance, was aimed at people who expressed interest in civil rights and Martin Luther King Jr., among other ideas, issues and people. The ad, bought for 58,194 rubles ($998), was viewed 752,179 times. Another, which read “Back the Badge,” was served to people who were interested in state police and “Officer Down” memorial page. It had over one million views.

Another ad, purportedly from a group calling itself LGBT United, invited viewers to counter protest a rally by the Westboro Baptist Church. The divisive church, known for its hostility toward gays and lesbians, was planning an event “to stand against tolerance in education,” according to the message. It was viewed 4,798 times, cost 3,137 rubles and its target audience included people interested in Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and LGBT rights. Religion surfaced in others ads. One featured a cartoon Jesus Christ arm-wrestling satan to ensure a defeat of Clinton; it received 14 clicks. Other ads supporting Sanders candidacy netted similarly poor engagement.

An ad, purportedly by a group called LGBT United, invites viewers to counter-protest a Westboro Baptist Church rally. The message was paid for in rubles and got almost 5,000 views. 
Source: House Intelligence Committee

Senator Mark Warner, the democratic senator from Virginia, also lamented the use and distribution of so-called organic, non-ad posts on Facebook that were also aimed at fanning political divisions. On his Twitter feed, he posted an example showing Clinton’s face superimposed on the body of Satan, who in turn is squaring off with Jesus. “`Like’ if you want Jesus to win!,” the headline reads. 

Colin Stretch, Facebook’s general counsel, responded that the Russian ad behavior has prompted the social company to improve its political advertising going forward. “It was undertaken by people that understand social media,” Stretch said. “These people were not amateurs. That underscores the threat we’re facing.” 

Twitter was not spared either. The House panel released a 65 page document listing Twitter accounts tied to Russian bots. Handles therein ran the gamut from typical American names, like Kim Swanson, to variants of Russian names such as Evgeni and Ivan. Some handles were issues-related, such as black4unity and LgbtRally; others tried hard to fit in – like “hashtagmemom.” A few appear downright nonsensical: “gffgfsfgfsdffjj.”

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