Philip Ellis
News & Views
Facebook sold ads to Russians during 2016 election

It has been confirmed that Facebook sold $100,000 worth of ads to Russian “troll farms” prior to the 2016 US presidential election. The social network reports that approximately 470 “inauthentic accounts,” presumed to be operated out of Russia, purchased 3,000 ads between June 2015 and May 2017.

While a small number of the ads directly referenced presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the majority were more obliquely political in their content. “The ads and accounts appeared to focus on amplifying divisive social and political messages across the ideological spectrum — touching on topics from LGBT matters to race issues to immigration to gun rights,” says Alex Stamos, Facebook’s Chief Security Officer.

In the immediate aftermath of the election, Mark Zuckerberg vehemently denied that the proliferation of fake news on Facebook had any influence on voter behaviour of the ultimate outcome of the race — although he has since publicly stated a commitment to curbing the spread of misinformation, propaganda and hate speech on the platform.

However, these latest findings indicate that the Russian-controlled accounts were able to geographically target about one quarter of their paid ads to specific areas. According to Rep. Adam B. Schiff, Senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, this new data is “a profound warning to us and others about future elections,” and he goes on to say that it remains to be seen “whether there was any coordination between these social media trolls and the [Republican] campaign. We have to get to the bottom of that.”

Intelligence analysts have theorised for some time that Russians used social media to spread misinformation ahead of the election, which this new information seems to support. “We had these suspicions, but we could never see who was purchasing the accounts,” says Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who praises Facebook for its transparency. “They probably could have buried this, and they did the right thing by coming forward.”

Meanwhile Mark Warner, Vice Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speculates that these ads are just “the tip of the iceberg,” and advocates greater regulation and back-end transparency of political advertising online; specifically, he believes companies like Facebook should be required to regarding disclose the sources of campaign ads and other politically themed ad content. Republican Senator Richard Burr, Chairman of the Intelligence Committee, deems such action on their part moot, as foreign interference in US elections is already against the law. “That would not be the jurisdiction of our committee,” he says. “The question is, is there a regulator of social media?”

Facebook has deployed a series of measures this year to combat fake news and fraudulent accounts, including introducing a new rule which will penalize pages which publish fake news by banning them as advertisers. Following the US election, the network faced similar challenges in France and Germany, and internet commentators have been vocal in their insistence that Facebook safeguard itself against being “weaponised” for political ends.

“We know we have to stay vigilant to keep ahead of people who try to misuse our platform,” says Stamos. “We believe in protecting the integrity of civic discourse, and require advertisers on our platform to follow both our policies and all applicable laws. We also care deeply about the authenticity of the connections people make on our platform.”

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