WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Russian operatives used Facebook to publicise 129 phony events during the 2016 presidential campaign that drew the attention of nearly 340,000 users - many of whom said they were planning to attend - according to a company document released by the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday (Jan 25).
Though it's not possible to know how many people actually went to these events, the numbers highlight how Russian operatives did not merely deliver disinformation to millions of American voters during the election season.
In some cases, Russians allegedly working in an office building in St Petersburg motivated people to take to the streets in cities across the United States to support various causes, a striking accomplishment for a foreign influence operation that American technology companies worked for months to downplay.
"Not only did they influence how people viewed Russian policy, they got people to take physical action. That's unprecedented," said Clinton Watts, a former FBI agent who studies Russian disinformation for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. "They just did it persistently, and they did it well."
Facebook declined to disclose a list of the 129 events publicised by the Russian operatives, who Facebook has said were linked to the Internet Research Agency (IRA). But previous disclosures by the company make clear that the operatives focused in their disinformation campaigns on sensitive social issues, including racial and religious controversies, gun rights, police violence, southern heritage and immigration.
Facebook had previously disclosed details about a particular event highlighted by Russian-controlled accounts. A group called Heart of Texas, announced a rally to take place May 21, 2016, under the banner of "Stop Islamization of Texas".
A separate Russian-controlled group, United Muslims of America, publicised a competing rally to "Save Islamic Knowledge" at the same place and time, prompting two groups to face off in competing demonstrations in Houston - a sign of how Russians hoped to turn divisions into open conflict.
The document, which includes written responses by Facebook to questions posed by members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, includes several revelations, including that there was some "overlap" between targeting of voters by Russian accounts and the campaign of Donald Trump, though Facebook calls this overlap "insignificant" in the document - echoing remarks made in a Nov. 1 hearing by the company's general counsel Colin Stretch.
Facebook also said that it has found no evidence so far that Russians sought to meddle last year's state elections in Virginia and New Jersey.
The revelation about the events publicised on Facebook came in response to a question by Senator Kamala Harris about the subject. The company wrote in the document released on Thursday that, a "A total of 129 events were created across 13 IRA Pages. Approximately 338,300 unique accounts viewed these events. About 25,800 accounts marked that they were interested in an event, and about 62,500 marked that they were going to an event. We do not have data about the realization of these events."