'Russians put divisive ads' on Facebook ahead of US election

Social media company says secretive firm based in Russia spent $135k to spread polarising views

SAN FRANCISCO • Facebook says it has found that an operation likely based in Russia spent US$100,000 (S$135,000) on thousands of ads in the United States promoting divisive social and political messages ahead of last year's presidential election.

Facebook said on Wednesday that 3,000 ads and 470 "inauthentic" accounts and pages spread polarising views on topics, including immigration, race and gay rights, between June 2015 and May this year.

Another US$50,000 was spent on 2,200 "potentially politically related" ads, likely by Russians, Facebook said.

The group financing the ads is called the Internet Research Agency, a secretive company based in St Petersburg known for pushing Kremlin propaganda, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The ads align with a broader strategy to misinform the public through a new category of attack Facebook calls "information operations", outlined in a white paper earlier this year.

US election law bars foreign nationals and foreign entities from spending money to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate, though non-US citizens may generally advertise on issues.

Facebook announced the findings in a blog post by its chief security officer, Mr Alex Stamos, and said that it was cooperating with federal inquiries into influence operations during the 2016 US presidential election.

Facebook briefed members of both the Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees on Wednesday about the suspected Russian advertising, according to a congressional source familiar with the matter. Both committees are conducting probes into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, including potential collusion between the campaign of President Donald Trump and Moscow.

Facebook also gave its findings to Mr Robert Mueller, the special counsel in charge of investigating alleged Russian interference in last year's presidential election, a source familiar with the matter said.

The company produced copies of advertisements as well as data about the buyers, the source said.

Mr Mueller's office declined to comment.

Facebook said it found no link between the Russian-purchased advertising and any specific presidential campaign.

Even if no laws were violated, Facebook said the 470 accounts and pages associated with the ads ran afoul of the social network's requirements for authenticity and have since been suspended.

The relatively small ad-spend of US$100,000 can go a long way on the social network; it backed about 3,000 ads with the potential to reach millions of people.

The findings also buttress US intelligence agency conclusions that Russia was actively involved in shaping the election.

President Trump's oldest son, Mr Donald Trump Jr, told Senate investigators yesterday that he set up a meeting in June last year with a Russian lawyer because he was intrigued that she might have damaging information about Mrs Hillary Clinton, saying it was important to learn about Mrs Clinton's "fitness" to be president.

But nothing came of the Trump Tower meeting, he said, and he was adamant that he never colluded with the Russian government's campaign to disrupt last year's presidential election.

In a prepared statement during an interview with Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, the younger Mr Trump said he was initially conflicted when he heard that the lawyer, Ms Natalia Veselnitskaya, might have damaging information about Mrs Clinton. Despite his interest, he said, he always intended to consult his own lawyers about the propriety of using any information that Ms Veselnitskaya, who has ties to the Kremlin, gave him at the meeting. "To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out," he said.

"Depending on what, if any, information they had, I could then consult with counsel to make an informed decision as to whether to give it further consideration."

The meeting came about after the younger Mr Trump received an e-mail from a family associate saying that potentially damaging information was being provided as part of the Russian government's support for his father. But in his statement yesterday, he described his decision to agree to the meeting as the byproduct of the chaotic campaign assembled by his father, rather than any attempt to collude with Russia.

REUTERS, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2017, with the headline ''Russians put divisive ads' on Facebook ahead of US election'. Print Edition | Subscribe