Facebook ads by Russians to fool U.S. voters released by Congress

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee released thousands of Russian Facebook ads on Thursday, offering the public its first in-depth look at the troubling messages used to heighten tensions among Americans during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The release of the ads, which Facebook says were purchased by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency to sway public sentiment, comes as the giant social network races to tighten restrictions on political ads to head off manipulation of upcoming elections, including this fall’s hotly contested midterms.

Pressure has intensified since the Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies in February, exposing a wide-ranging effort to subvert the election and to support the Trump campaign.

Facebook pages with points of view that span the political spectrum from “Blacktivist” to “Heart of Texas” bought ads. Some of the more than 3,000 ads denounced Donald Trump, others his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton.

Many of the ads, placed by Russians posing as Americans, didn’t endorse a specific candidate but spread inflammatory messages on sensitive subjects such as immigration and race to amplify fault lines in American life, targeting users from specific backgrounds and tight races in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Virginia.

These negative appeals included a group called Fit Black, which urged people to attend “Black Fist Free Self-Defense Classes.” Another from the Army of Jesus encouraged voters to pick a president with “godly morals” with a picture of Jesus arm-wrestling Satan.

The Facebook ads varied in their effectiveness and reach, with some only being shared a few hundred times, others seen hundreds of thousands or more than 1 million times. They ran just over two years starting in June 2015, increasing in volume in October and November 2016, just before and after the presidential election, but also showing spikes in April and May of 2016 and also April and May of 2017.

Patterns quickly emerge in sampling the ads. Many of the hundreds of ads placed in April 2016 targeted racial divisions in American society, encouraging African-American political activism by imitating the language and messaging of the Black Lives Matter movement with posts highlighting racist incidents and others the resilience and beauty of the African-American community.

A smaller contingent that month targeted conservative Facebook users. Festooned with American flags, they sounded patriotic themes including reverence for the constitution. Still others contained calls for Americans to “take care of our vets, not illegals.”

Facebook says it has taken a much more aggressive stance on political and issue ads, forcing people who buy them to verify their identity and location and to reveal publicly who they are.

Russian Facebook ads meant to stir dissension in the U.S.

Until September, when it identified 470 accounts that purchased 3,000 ads for more than $100,000 over a two-year period, Facebook repeatedly denied the Russians exploited its platform. In fact, Russian operatives availed themselves of the precise nature of the ad targeting offered by Facebook, zeroing in on categories of Facebook users, such as gun lovers, Trump supporters, residents of certain places, and more. They also took advantage of Facebook’s computer algorithms, which at the time favored sensationalist posts that drive more reaction.

Ten million Americans saw the ads, Facebook estimates, and 146 million Americans, or nearly half of the U.S. population, may have been reached by content from Russian operatives such as status updates and videos on Facebook and Instagram, also owned by Facebook.

The extent of election meddling put Facebook on the defensive and served as a wake-up call for Facebook users, who for years allowed the culling of their personal information in exchange for the free service without much thought to what happens to that data, let alone whether an adversarial foreign power could exploit it to provoke outrage over polarizing issues from gay rights to gun rights.

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