Lawmakers on Wednesday publicly released a sample of the 3,000 Facebook advertisements purchased by Kremlin-linked actors designed to sow political and social division in the U.S. and interfere with the 2016 presidential election.
The ads showed Russian actors targeted people on Facebook based on interests such as gun ownership, as well as by race, religion and political preference. The ads were published on Wednesday after Facebook and Twitter for weeks declined calls by Congressional leaders to make the Kremlin-linked ads that ran on their platforms available to the public. The Silicon Valley companies had said they believed the decision to publish the ads should be determined by the government.
One ad by “Back the Badge,” for example, was intended to reach the wives of law enforcement officers and was viewed more than 1.3 million times. Another ad by the Russia-backed group “Heart of Texas,” touted an alleged rally in May 2016 called “Stop Islamization of Texas.” Another page targeting Donald Trump supporters posted about an anti-Hillary Clinton rally in New York City. Representatives on the House Intelligence Committee also shared the names of the 2,752 Twitter accounts tied to the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency. The accounts often had names mimicking well-known politicians and organizations, such as @_GeorgeSchultz_ and @TheTimesOfLondon.
The coordinated ad campaign, which showed a nuanced understanding of Facebook and its ad platform, focused specifically on illegal immigration, gun ownership, black political activism and the presence of Muslims in some communities. Facebook has said that about 90% of the 3,000 ads, which ran over a more than two year period from 2015 to 2017, were “issue-based” and not focused on specific presidential candidates. Senators, in a hearing on Wednesday on Russian meddling, described the illegal political ads as one small piece of coordinated cyber warfare by Russia.
Some Senators have claimed the ads had no allegiance toward any one candidate. However, intelligence agencies concluded earlier this year that President Vladimir Putin tried to tilt the election in favor of President Donald Trump.
"This activity... is going to go down in history as the greatest covert activity by Mother Russia,” Representative Will Hurd said in the hearing.
Facebook, Twitter and Google testified in one Senate hearing on Tuesday and two Congressional hearings on Wednesday on the topic of Russian meddling via social media. Senators in the Intelligence Committee berated the companies for not reacting seriously and swiftly enough to signs of Russian interference or to concerns shared by Congress.